Helping Young Children Practice Science Skills By Planting a Garden

Boy planting flower

Gardening can be a great science activity in the child care setting. Whether you create gardens for food or beauty, children can interact with the dirt to learn so much about the earth. Encourage toddlers to use their senses to smell the soil, feel the warmth of the sun and the wetness of the water, watch the shoots come through the soil, and enjoy the beauty of the plants.

Indoor Gardens

Place all plants in a sunny, warm area; try a south-facing windowsill. Clear plastic containers with raised lids, like those some pies and cookies come in, make perfect miniature greenhouses. Fill an aluminum foil pan with potting soil, punch some holes in the bottom for drainage, and plant and water the seeds. Put the foil pan in a clear plastic container. The seeds sprout very quickly. Raise the lid occasionally to let excess moisture escape. Another method of indoor gardening is to use heavy duty zipper-lock bags. Fill a quart or gallon freezer bag with dirt, plant a few seeds in the dirt, water well, and seal shut. Green onions, radishes, lettuce, and herbs can be grown in plastic bags. Tape the filled bags to a sunny window.

You can also use parts of the following fruits and vegetables to grow new plants:

  • Carrots: After trimming off the leaves, cut 1/2-1 inch off the top of the carrot. Place the top in a layer of pebbles in a flat dish. Be sure to keep the carrot tops well watered as they grow.
  • Pineapple: Cut off the top of the pineapple and trim off the bottom three rows of leaves. Let dry for three days. Plant 1″ deep in soil. Keep the plants moist and sunny.
  • Avocado: Set the large end of an avocado seed in a jar of water, using three toothpicks to support the seed. Sprout the seed in partial sunlight. When the stem is about 4-5 inches tall, plant the avocado in soil.
  • Onion: Find an onion that is already sprouted. Plant the onion in soil and watch it grow.

Outdoor Gardens

Raised beds, as small as one square foot, are easy to install and can provide hours of fun and exploration for young children. All you need is material to build the garden bed, such as wooden boards or cinder blocks. Fill the bed with a mixture of soil and help children plant. You should aim for a highly visible area, where everyone can see the garden and observe changes in the plants as they grow. For programs that have multiple ages of children, it might be good to place the garden outside of the play area to control access to the plants. An adult can then take a few children at a time to work in the garden. Here are some other tips for successful outdoor gardens with young children.

  • Choose plants that will do well in your climate conditions.
  • Choose crops that mature quickly, such as lettuce, radishes, sunflowers, spinach, bush beans and zucchini.
  • Choose plants that will do well in your garden location. For example, plants that do well in the shade include lettuce, Swiss chard, collards, spinach, mustard, impatiens, begonias and coleus.
  • Grow vegetables and flowers you like. Look through garden catalogs and cut out favorites.

Gardens can be a great way to introduce young children to where food comes from, followed by allowing them to eat the food in the center for snack. If you do choose to grow food for your center, follow the guidelines for safe food consumption. The USDA is supportive of such programs, and more information can be found on the USDA Farm to Preschool resource page.

Garden Activity Suggestions

  • Create a journal of your gardening experience. A journal could contain a map of the garden, seeds that were planted, the weather condition, pictures of what flowers were grown, visitors to the garden (such as bees, bugs, birds & butterflies that were seen in the garden), and photos of the vegetables that were harvested.
  • Eat the food you grow. Have a salad party or help prepare a recipe using “your” vegetables.

For More Information

To learn more, check out the following eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care articles:

  • Natural Outdoor Environments in Child Care
  • Weather Considerations for Outdoor Play in Child Care

To get more tips on gardening with children see My First Garden: A Guide to the World of Fun and Clever Gardening from the University of Illinois Extension.