“I planted that seed,” gardening with young children

Child's hand pointing to a bean plant. Pride in their work is evident when young children point to a bean plant in the garden row and say, “I planted that seed.” Being the planter makes children more interested in the care of the plants, more willing to avoid stepping on them and to carry buckets of water from the rain barrel. 

Early childhood programs include those that operate year-round such as family child care homes and full day child care centers or preschools, and those that follow a “school year” schedule of Child turning the soil in a garden bed.August/September-June, such as half-day preschools and public and private elementary schools. Care of the gardens in these programs often follows the calendar, leaving gardens untended if the program is not in session. This is one of the hurdles that teachers face when children’s interest in planting seeds and growing plants points to establishing a garden. A garden planted in spring might die if not watered from June-August but that just provides space to begin anew when  the children return in the fall. And you might be surprised by what survives with just the water provided by precipitation.

Child watering bean plants in a garden.Setting up a system of care that doesn’t depend on only a few people is helpful in maintaining a garden, even one as small as a large pot outside the door.  A system might include adding “water carrier” to the class job chart and putting a gallon container next to the place children line up to go outside as a visual reminder of the needs of the garden. Families can be added to the system. Children can decorate an invitation to families to do a little weeding at drop-off or pick-up time, allowing their child to transition to school or play just 5 more minutes. A practice can be established that when it’s time to stop playground action for a water-break for all, children carry a cup to the garden after drinking their fill. 

Gardening experiences often include observations and interactions with insects, those that are beneficial to our garden’s production of food and those that are not. By caring for an insect year-round, the Tenebrio beetle, we can help children feel comfortable when they encounter others in the garden.

Use this list of resources to learn more about gardening with young children:

Does your program “provide multiple opportunities for children to try a new food?” Do you have buckets, hand trowels, and harvesting baskets on hand for children’s use? Early Sprouts Institute offers resources such as guidelines to help preschools become “nutritionally purposeful environments,” and a list of the kind of tools that should be available for young children to use in the garden.

Farm to Preschool Subcommittee of the National Farm to School Network, Preschool Gardens page has a list of websites with information to help you start and sustain your preschool garden.

A Gardening Angels How-To Manual: Easy Steps to Building A Sustainable School Garden Program by Common Ground Garden Program, University of California Cooperative Extension Los Angeles County says that “Gardening is a skill everyone can develop.”

Food and Nutrition Service’s Office of Community Food Systems online brochure on School Gardens: Using Gardens to Grow Healthy Habits in Cafeterias, Classrooms, and Communities offers safety management tips for healthy harvesting and use of school grown produce. 

Food Safety Tips for School Gardens, from the National Food Service Management Institute, University of Mississippi, provides additional school garden safety recommendations, such as where to site a garden and how to ensure safe soil.

The Spruce, a “home website,” has information about when produce is in season and recipes for using it.

 US Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition ServiceSchool Gardening” page lists questions for programs to consider when gardening.

Read more about gardening with children on these NSTA blog posts and start planning now for establishing a gardening practice with your children:

Gardening in schools by Mary Bigelow

Gardening: with limitations and some success

Garden observations and questions

The Joys of Gardening with Young Children by Gail Laubenthal

Choosing plants for fall school garden lessons

May these resources inspire and sustain you in your plan to begin or continue gardening with young children!

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