The Joys of Gardening with Young Children

Guest blogger Gail LaubenthalI welcome guest blogger, Gail Laubenthal, who shares her experiences and tips for helping young children nurture a garden and being nurtured by it. Gail is a retired teacher (43 years), currently serving as an Educational Consultant, mentoring Early Childhood teachers in Austin ISD and Grand Prairie ISD. She is also a frequent workshop presenter at NSTA, NAEYC, TAEYC, and other state and local conferences and district events.Contact her at

Give children the opportunity to nurture a small piece of earth, and in return, the earth will nurture them with a harvest. Hands-on gardening creates hope and renewal in the hearts of all who participate. As Maria Montessori advised us, “The best means of invigorating the child is to immerse him in nature.” (Montessori, 1964). When children plant, care for, and harvest vegetables, like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, turnips, beets, and lettuce, they are more likely to eat them…much to their parents’ surprise! They also begin to understand where their food comes from.

As you begin this school year, ask yourself if this might be the year to create or enhance a garden space for your children. If the answer is, “Yes!” then you can use these tips to help build a successful garden experience. The learning opportunities are endless!

So what should you be doing now?

  • Find a garden space that has a minimum of 6 hours of sun each day.
  • A nearby water source is important, but not essential. Use a long hose to fill a 5 gallon bucket with water and the children can use small cups and cans to dip their water and pour it on their seeds, sprouts, and plants.
  • If you already have a classroom garden, begin planning a cleanup day and invite your children and their families to help. If your school has business/organization volunteers, find out if they would be interested in helping with your gardening program. Plan a weekend garden cleanup event. One teacher “planted” a dead tree in a bucket and hung colorful paper pictures of fruits and vegetables on it. On each she put a request for garden tools, seeds, and plants. In no time, all of her garden needs had been fulfilled.
  • Children working in a raised bed "Square Foot" school garden.By using the Square Foot gardening method, you can build a 4-foot by 4-foot square garden and 16 children can have their own 1-foot by 1-foot space. Other methods, like container gardening, might also work, if space and sunlight is a factor. Many ideas on gardening with children can be found on Pinterest, including on my garden board at
  • Begin to think about what types of vegetables, fruits, flowers and/or herbs you would like to plant. It is best to include your children when making these decisions. Your local county extension office often has a yearly calendar listing seeds and plants that can be planted in your area based on a seasonal timeline.
  • August and September are often too hot if you live in the South, so most teachers use those months to prepare the garden site, with the goal of planting in late September or early October. Other areas will have different challenges and schedules. Be mindful of your local weather to determine when you should begin to plant. In some areas of the country, the fall/winter gardens reap the most bountiful harvest. In other areas, the spring/summer garden is the best. See planting guides from your cooperative extension service (see an example here) and the USDA Plant Hardiness map to determine which plants are most likely to survive over winter.

Teachable moments abound when gardening:

  • Planting flowers alongside your vegetables will also be beneficial, as many insects will sip on their nectar. I always think of the 5 “B’s” – bugs, butterflies, bees, bats, and birds when planning a children’s garden. If you are going to plant, think about the critters that also benefit from the gardenenvironment.
  • Prepare an outdoor investigation backpack to take with you to the garden. It could contain hand lenses, insect field guide, journals or paper, clipboards, writing tools, collection jars, butterfly nets, and garden and nature books for children who like to read outside.
  • If you are fortunate to have a storage area for your garden tools nearby, the children can have easy access and learn how to use them safely, as well as their names and functions. If you have no storage outside, a 5-gallon bucket can work as a tote for tools.
  • Another important point to make here is to teach the children to never, never hurt a living creature, no matter how small. If the children learn how insects and other animals can be helpful in the outdoor environment, then they are less likely to step on the ant, making it’s way across the ground to it’s home.
  • Build a scarecrow in the fall. Read The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything by Linda Williams,  as it has all of the components of a scarecrow. Children love stuffing hay into the shirt and overalls! See an American Sign Language and audio version by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Children pulling in a line to harvest a large turnip.Plant turnips and let some of them grow very large before harvesting. Read one of themany adaptations of the traditional Russian folktale, The Enormous Turnip, before going out to the garden. When in the garden, let the children re-enact the story as they pull the enormous turnip with the help of their friends.
  • After cleaning the turnips, prepare the greens with butter and bacon. The raw turnip can be cubed and cooked with butter and a little sugar, as well as eaten raw (with Ranch Dressing). The children can vote on the version they like the best…a great graphing opportunity!
  • Read Growing Vegetable Soup by Lois Ehlert, read about the author, and make a big pot of Stone Soup (many book adaptations of this tale are available).
  • Set up a grocery story in the Dramatic Play Center. Make sure there are plenty of play fruits and vegetables for the children to purchase and then take back to their home or restaurant for preparation. A fall and spring flower shop gives the children opportunities to create flower arrangements and “sell” them to the customers. The children can also take some of their creations to the office to decorate the Secretary or Principal’s desk.
  • Plan field trips: local farms, the neighborhood grocery store, a garden nursery, and/or a botanical garden, which often has an area especially for children.
  • Invite local “experts” to share their gardening experiences—Master Gardeners or family members who have experience to share.
  • If you have an abundance of harvested food, let the children take it home to their families. My classes almost always cooked and ate everything that we grew in the garden.

Consider this project:

Source of food Web by Gail LaubenthalBefore you even mention the idea of gardening, ask the children, “Where does your food come from?” Record their answers on a chart or web. Most young children will say, “the grocery story”, “the refrigerator”, “my Mom makes me food”, and a few might say, “from a garden”, but only a very few! I created a web that shows some of the connections that can be made when you garden throughout the year. NOTE: these are just a few connections…there are so many more!

After you have successfully gone through the fall/winter garden season, your children will have different ideas on where their food comes from. They learn that for them to eat food someone has to work very hard to prepare the soil, plant seeds, care for the garden by weeding and watering the tender young plants. They also learn that when all of that hard work is done, they just might have something to harvest and eat.

At the end of the year, when I asked the children to reflect back on their gardening and farm experiences, I asked the question again. These are the answers I got:

  • The grocery store sells food that the farmer grows.
  • Eggs come from chickens.
  • Milk comes from cows (and goats). Yogurt, ice cream and butter are made from milk.
  • To make bread, you have to grow wheat.
  • Ladybugs saved our food. They are good bugs!
  • We can grow broccoli, lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, beans, peas, turnips, beets, kale, strawberries, and flowers in our garden.
  • We can eat some flowers, like Violas or Johnny-Jump-Ups.
  • It’s O.K. to let caterpillars eat some of our food, because we will have more butterflies.

Gardening With Young Children by Sara Starbuck, Marla Olthof, and Karen Midden (Redleaf 2014) offers teachers and parents a world of information on beginning a garden program with young children. They even have a chapter on the benefits of getting infants and toddlers into the garden! This book, a second edition of Hollyhocks and Honeybees, has many first hand stories by teachers who have added gardening to their program. The last chapter explodes with universal garden learning experiences. They focus on explorations that can be done in any garden and list concepts, materials, a description, extensions, and safety considerations for each activity. This book is a “must have” for teachers and parents who garden with young children!


Laubenthal, Gail. Celebrating Earth…Everyday. The National Montessori Reporter, Vol XIX, No. 2, Summer 1995.

Montessori, M. The Montessori Method. Schocken Books: NY, 1964.

Starbuck, Olthof, Midden. Gardening with Young Children. Redleaf Press: St. Paul, MN, 2014.

Thank you to Gail for sharing her school garden tips, research and stories. Share yours by commenting below!

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  1. Steve Rich
    Posted August 12, 2014 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    What great advice for gardening with kids! It’s a perfect fit for the the outdoor classroom plans in Outdoor Science: A Practical Guide from NSTA Press. In addition to the wonderful ideas in the blog, I would suggest adding a compost bin to help young children understand the benefits of returning garden waste to the Earth. Children love the book Compost Stew which makes a fun read-aloud.

  2. Gail Laubenthal
    Posted August 12, 2014 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    Composting can add great results in the garden area. Some school cafeterias are very cooperative and can save veggie and fruit discards from children. I always had a vermicomposting tub in my classroom, so my children would scrape their uneaten food into a bucket so that we could feed our red wigglers who were busy eating and pooping out the wonderful compost that we added to our garden throughout the year. One year a friend used Puppet Pals on the iPad and iMovie to create the steps that my PreK children went through to create the worm bin. You can view it at As far as having a compost bin in the garden area, you have to be willing to keep it turned and filled with a good amount of brown and green materials, as well as food scrapes. If you do it right, you can use this “free” compost to enrich your garden soil.

  3. Posted August 13, 2014 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    Gail: Your blog post is quite a hit all around! Our Facebook audience is loving it. It even got shared to the Science Books & Films (by AAAS) facebook page. Here is a link if you want to see what our Facebook friends are saying: Thanks for writing for NSTA, and thank you to Peggy Ashbrook for arranging this–very nice!

  4. Peggy Ashbrook
    Posted August 13, 2014 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    The National Gardening Association has an article about composting:
    The Rottin’ Truth by Eve Pranis

  5. Gail Laubenthal
    Posted August 13, 2014 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    Another benefit of gardening is the observations and inquiry that happens when you include plants that attract beneficial insects. If you plant dill and fennel, the Swallowtail butterflies will gladly lay their eggs and their young caterpillars will have food to eat. If you plant milkweed, you will get Monarchs. If you plant snapdragons, you might get Buckeye butterflies. And if you plant Passion Vine on a fence near your garden you will surely get Gulf Fritillaries. This gives children exposure to life cycles. Many teachers collect the larva and the host plants, put them in see-through containers, and allow the children to see the metamorphic changes taking place. Eventually, the children can release the adult butterflies into the garden, so that they can start the cycle over again. Children begin to understand, first hand, that living things grow and change over time…it’s a cycle. The teacher can relate it to the child’s growth and changes since birth, the cycle of their day, and the cycle of the plants in the garden.

  6. Mary Preston
    Posted October 24, 2014 at 4:39 am | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing those really helpful advices for gardening with children! I’ll try to attract my kids’ attention by using the questions you’ve proposed!

  7. Peggy Ashbrook
    Posted October 24, 2014 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    There is a conversation about gardening continuing on the NSTA Learning Center,
    Mary, when you do garden with your children, let us know what happens!

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