Gardening with young children: It’s
easier than you think!
by Laura McFarland
the children in my class planted snow peas in a garden plot
on the playground. After days of watering and watching, the
children saw tiny green shoots peeking above the soil.
A few days later,
the children could see that the plants were developing into vines.
Each day they watched how the vines wrapped their tendrils around
the trellis and crept slowly higher and higher. The appearance
of the first pink bloom was cause for a celebration!
After the Thanksgiving break,
they rushed outside. “It’s getting really tall!” shouted
Natalie. “Wow, look at the pink flowers!” Steven exclaimed.
After the flowers bloomed,
small green pea pods began to grow. Soon the crisp snow peas were ready to
pick. The children couldn’t wait to arrive at school so that they could
pick the peas that were ready.
One morning, we had picked
so many peas that we decided to have them for snack. The children helped rinse
and dry them. Most of the children tasted them. “It’s crunchy!” said
Angelica. “It’s kind of sweet” Jose stated. Robert devoured
at least 10 of them!
The next week, the children
harvested lettuce we had planted. They helped wash the lettuce, tore it into
bite-sized pieces in a bowl, and added some of our snow peas. We had a salad!
Many children ate it with gusto. Even the children who had never touched a
vegetable before were at least giving it a chance.
• • •
Gardening with preschoolers
and even toddlers is not as hard as many teachers think. You don’t
need a green thumb, just some basic knowledge.
What can children learn through gardening experiences?
Gardening with children offers countless benefits (Tilgner
1988). Children enhance many skills, such as the following:
control through planting seeds, picking ripe vegetables and
control through digging, raking, and hoeing the soil, and watering
skills through working and cooperating with adults and other
children to care for the garden, and
competence by giving children a sense of pride in what they
helps children develop language through discussions about what
to plant, where to plant, and what kinds of insects are roaming
in the garden. Teachers can introduce new vocabulary, such
compost, roots, and bloom.
Gardening also stimulates
cognitive growth and science processing skills. Children develop observation
skills as they see what is growing. They learn to compare and classify
as they observe similarities and differences in seeds, plants, flowers
and insects. As children observe what grows and what doesn’t,
they learn to infer, predict, hypothesize, and problem solve about the
growth process (Lind 2000).
For example, the children
in my class observed that the lettuce plants on one side of our garden were
taller and fuller than those on the other side. Why might that be? We talked
about soil properties, amount of water each side of the garden received,
different insects we saw on the plants, and amount of sunlight. After much
discussion, we noticed that the side with smaller plants had much more shade.
So it was the amount of sunlight that made the difference.
One simple observation by
a 3-year-old led us to discuss and explore many topics of interest. Thus,
gardening lends itself well to emergent
curriculum, in which
teachers plan activities based on the children’s developing interests.
Gardening helps children learn many things, including the following (Lind
things grow, properties of seeds, soil, water, and sunlight;
of new insects, including ladybugs, bees, and butterflies as well as caterpillars
for the environment;
food actually comes from (It doesn’t just appear in the grocery
things in nature are interconnected (bees, birds, soil, water, plants); and
foods are healthy.
How do you start a classroom garden?
The basic need is an area to plant seeds. If you have ample space
outside, find an area that gets plenty of sunlight, about
eight hours a day. It need not be a large space. If you don’t
have an area outside, try planting in large flower pots
that you can set out in the sun.
the soil needs to be healthy for plants to grow well, add
organic material. Children can help work it into the ground
The supplies are simple:
shovels, hoes, rakes, and watering cans. You may want at least one adult-sized
tool and a couple of smaller, child-sized tools (Tilgner 1988).
Plant vegetables and herbs
that are easy to grow and need little maintenance. In the fall, radishes,
snow peas, lettuce, and greens grow well. In the spring, plant cucumber,
squash, basil, tomatoes, okra, eggplant, beans, and black-eyed peas. If you
have a small space, pick just one or two things to plant. Beans are usually
a sure bet, and they grow fast.
Before planting anything,
make sure nothing about it is poisonous to children. With toddlers, you might
avoid planting potatoes, for example, because the vines can be hazardous
Let the children do as
much as possible. They can take turns putting seeds in the soil and watering
them. Don’t worry if seeds are not exactly spaced.
The process of developing the garden is just as, if not more, important
than the product you get.
Don’t be discouraged if something doesn’t grow well. Use the experience
as an opportunity for learning. The children can brainstorm why something didn’t
grow well, and suggest possible solutions about how they can do it differently
Use plants as a science
material. Plant herbs, and have children smell, taste and describe them.
Have children explore vegetables, inside and out. Examine the skins, flesh,
and seeds of your edibles. Let children observe the process of plants dying
and decaying. By planting seeds, watering plants, watching them grow, and
then watching them die and decompose, children can learn about the life cycle.
If you don’t feel
comfortable with gardening, just make it as simple as possible. Ask parents
if they would lend their expertise or help. Ask parents or local gardening
stores to donate seeds and supplies. Read more about gardening. The resources
at the end of this article give more detailed instructions.
Extend gardening to cooking
Once your garden starts producing edibles, don’t be afraid
to do some cooking or food preparation activities to test
what you have grown. Children are often excited about trying the foods
they help grow. Even somewhat less common vegetables may
appeal to children if they have been involved in their growth and preparation.
in my classroom garden, we picked eggplant, a food that most
of the 2-year-olds had never tried. We explored the texture
of the skin, examined the seeds inside, and then chopped it
and cooked it in a little olive oil. All the
children were eager to try it, and one child actually ate three
bowls of it!
We have also made avocado
salsa with the fresh cilantro from the garden. It was a huge hit.
One child who rarely ate
vegetables took a bite of the collard greens we had grown. He exclaimed
to his mother, “I tried the collard greens!” If
children don’t want to eat the vegetables they have grown, at least
you have exposed them to new foods. It often takes many exposures to a
new food before a child will try it.
Getting children involved
Children as young as toddlers will enjoy gardening. Toddlers
are perfectly capable of putting seeds in the soil (with
close supervision) and watering plants with small watering cans.
Toddlers will be fascinated by the bugs and birds that the
can have a more in-depth involvement in the gardening process.
For example, 4- and 5-year-olds will be able to learn the difference between
weeds and useful plants and can help pull out the weeds. They can also do
more of the digging, raking, and tilling of the soil.
find that some children are not as interested in the garden
as others. That’s fine. For some
children, however, the garden will become a major source of fascination
and wonder. Some children will develop a strong passion
for gardening and nature in general.
Once you get the gardening
started, it will be worth the effort. So, what are you waiting for? Get those
Roberta and Gary Appel. 1990. The
Growing Classroom: Garden-Based Science. Boston: Addison-Wesley
Karen. 2000. Exploring
Science in Early Childhood Education: A Developmental Approach. Albany,
Sally and Brenda Hieronymus. 1997. More
Than Magnets. Exploring the Wonders of Science in Preschool and
Kindergarten. St. Paul, Minn.: Redleaf Press.
Linda. 1988. Let’s Grow! 72 Gardening
Adventures With Children. Pownal, Vt.: Storey Communications,
About the author
Laura McFarland, Ph.D., is a lecturer in Human Development
and Family Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin, where
she earned a doctorate. She teaches two groups of toddlers
at the Priscilla Pond Flawn Child and Family Laboratory.