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Gardening with young children: It’s easier than you think!
In September, 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:
fine-motor control through planting seeds, picking ripe vegetables and pulling weeds,
large-motor control through digging, raking, and hoeing the soil, and watering the plants,
social skills through working and cooperating with adults and other children to care for the garden, and
emotional competence by giving children a sense of pride in what they can do.
Gardening 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 as and
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 , in which teachers plan activities based on the children’s developing interests. Gardening helps children learn many things, including the following (Lind 2000):
how things grow, properties of seeds, soil, water, and sunlight;
discovery of new insects, including ladybugs, bees, and butterflies as well as caterpillars and worms;
respect for the environment;
where food actually comes from (It doesn’t just appear in the grocery store!);
how things in nature are interconnected (bees, birds, soil, water, plants); and
which 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.
Because the soil needs to be healthy for plants to grow well, add organic material. Children can help work it into the ground (Tilgner 1988).
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 if eaten.
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 next time.
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.
Recently, 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. 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 garden attracts.
Older children 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.
You may 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 seeds planted!

Jaffe, Roberta and Gary Appel. 1990. . Boston: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.
Lind, Karen. 2000. Albany, N.Y.: Delmar.
Moonshaw, Sally and Brenda Hieronymus. 1997. St. Paul, Minn.: Redleaf Press.
Tilgner, Linda. 1988. Pownal, Vt.: Storey Communications, Inc.

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.