1. Realistic expectations
The most important thing to remember is to have realistic expectations. If you're looking for a beautiful fine tilth, perfectly neat rows and immaculate edges, well, don't take my children. You may find that in fact you have more work after they've "helped" than you did before, in tidying things up and putting things right. But producing little gardeners is a painstaking process, and there will be mud and tears (probably yours) before it is done. Be prepared for rows of onions to be trampled while carrots are being sown, for flowers to be pulled up instead of weeds and for your best hazel sticks to be thrown on the bonfire. Keep your eye on the end result - so long as they have some fun and maybe produce a little food or some flowers, you have succeeded.
2. Grow something they like
Lettuce is a very easy thing to start with. But it's an exceptional child who will be thrilled with a lettuce. So think of the things they love to eat. Strawberries are one of the best for beginner gardeners. If you know someone who already has some you can beg some of the runners or little plantlets that strawberries produce in abundance. Then really it's just a case of digging a hole, putting them in, filling the soil back and watering them. Perfect for little helpers. When the plants produce more little plantlets they can watch these grow and form new plants. In autumn they can cut all of the leaves off with a pair of not-too-sharp scissors, and really, that's pretty much all of the maintenance needed. If space is an issue, strawberries can happily be grown in pots.
My lot grow the things that they each enjoy. This year one is growing radishes, one is growing sugar snap peas and one is growing sweetcorn, which can be tricky, but even if we don't get many usable cobs, he's had a go. Novelty items are fun too. We bought a packet of strawberry popcorn the other day. The cobs are like small sweetcorn, but in various shades of pink. When it's ripened you can put it on a plate under a glass bowl in the microwave and turn it into popcorn. They can't wait. And never underestimate the power of a little competition. We've also got sunflowers growing, each pot carefully marked as to whose it is. The growth of these will be taken very seriously I promise you.
3. Make it fun
Your plot may need weeding, it may need nothing doing other than weeding, but they will probably only manage that for about ten minutes (or in some cases two) before they've had enough. Again, you can introduce a little competition, but really, weeding's not much fun and that's that. I ask mine to clear the bit of ground they want to plant in, which they're usually happy to do, but be prepared that very shortly they'll want something else to do that involves clipping things or hacking at things or just something with a little more action. I've found that scissors are quite popular. If you need the edges cut, someone might be prepared to do a (really bad) job of it.
4. Let them wander off
Sometimes I need to just spend a bit of time doing something (usually weeding) and the children have done their bit of planting, their bit of cutting and have finished arguing over the rake and well, they're bored. I let them explore our bit of the site. The rules are no running (there are lots of short pointy sticks and poles sticking out of the ground everywhere) and no touching anyone else's plot. Finding bugs is endlessly popular with small boys.
This is a little hazel copse in the corner of the site. Full of possibilities and spiders.
5. Don't spend too long there, and take snacks
If you're gardening away from home, you'll need snacks and you'll need drinks, otherwise there will be a constant chorus of "I'm hungry, I need a drink". Take a mini picnic, and if you have chairs let them set them up and have a sit down and something to eat. If I'm honest, this may be the main attraction of going to the allotment for my three. And leave before they get completely fed up. Do this, they'll happily go again. It may mean getting very little done and leaving halfway through a job, but remember point 1, realistic expectations.
6. Let them do the good stuff
Planting, digging (even needlessly) and playing Harry Potter with the Dutch hoe as a broomstick are all acceptable gardening pastimes. Cuttings things (anything) with secateurs (bigger children only, and mind those fingers) or blunt scissors is always a winner. If you have room, take a little sandpit or let them dig a small (washing-up bowl) pond.
Watering is popular, especially with a hose. But be warned, at the very least the waterer will get wet. Very possibly you will be drenched too. You may prefer to limit it to a small watering can.
I just asked mine what the best thing about the allotment was. The two biggest came instantly back with a chorus of "planting", while the littlest boy shouted "eating". Right now is a perfect time to sow loads of seeds - radishes, french beans, squashes and pumpkins, peas and carrots, to name but a few.
It's also a good time to put in little plants from the garden shop, such as sweetcorn and tomatoes. You can plant things in a theme, for example, grow your own pizza toppings.
Soon the "eating" time will come, and picking the produce is definitely something they all love to do. If you have soft fruit, such as raspberries, strawberries or blackcurrants, picking can keep them occupied for quite some time. Peas are another favourite. I grow sugar snap peas "Sugar Ann", so they can eat the pods, or if some are missed they can eat the peas. And when the plants are tall enough we pinch out the tops and eat the pea shoots as well. Much of the eating is done at the plot, straight from the plant, and this is just as it should be. Where else will they have a chance to eat food with maximum flavour and freshness? I'm hoping that one day they will remember the food we grew and how fantastic it tasted and that they'll want to do it themselves, with their children.
If you get the chance to do some gardening this week, with children or without, enjoy.