Teaching and learning

The best early years teacher is a garden

Here's how you can dig deeper when gardening with children.
Children playing in a garden
July 31, 2021
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In a rush? Here’s the quick run-down.
  • This story’s all about gardening with young children — and why, especially now, it’s a great idea to do a bit of gardening at your own early education program.
  • A garden is a classroom and a teacher in itself. We’ll take a look at all the different lessons and experiences that children can get from a dig in the dirt.
  • At the bottom, you can get some inspirations for great plants to grow with children, and best practices for gardening in your early education program.

These days, we just don’t spend as much time outdoors.

Children are wired to be fascinated with nature, but it’s harder than ever for little ones to get out in green spaces.

It’s nobody’s fault, really. We could point to technology reliance, dense cities or the pandemic to explain why we’re not getting out as much.

But the good news is, you can reverse this trend. In your early education setting, one of the best ways to do this is by bringing your little ones out into the garden. Whether you're a veteran green thumb or just beginning with a humble patch of dirt, it's one of the most enriching outdoor activities you can give to children.

The simple fact is, a garden is a terrific teacher to have on your team. In this article, we’ll explore just why that is — and how you can get more gardening going in your own early education setting.

If you’re curious about which plants are best to grow with children, or why the little ones shouldn’t wear gardening gloves, you’ve come to the right place.

Ready? Let’s dig in.


What are the benefits of gardening with children?

It’s not just that gardening feels wholesome: We’ve got decades of research that suggests digging about in the dirt really is a great developmental experience for young children.

Here’s how a bit of gardening helps children connect with some of our most important early learning goals:

  • Gardening is an exciting sensory experience for little ones. The moist soil of the garden is a perfect place for children to explore new textures, smells and sensations. For toddlers, gardening gives a lot of the benefits we enjoy through messy play.
  • Playing in the dirt does a young body good. The physical activity of digging and planting engages children’s whole body, and helps them sharpen their motor skills. Plus, a study from last year suggests that a bit of dirt helps boost children’s immune systems in big ways.
  • When we grow plants, we’re more likely to eat them, too. If you’re a picky eater, carrots don’t seem so scary once you know where they come from. Getting to know your greens in the garden can help us set children off with a better relationship to food.
  • There’s plenty of science learning in soil. It’s one thing to read about a beetle in a book. It’s another thing to play with the little guy you’ve just found in the dirt beneath your feet. When children play in the garden, they make a stronger real-life connection to the exciting organisms and natural processes in the world around them.
  • Gardening teaches children to care for the earth. When children spend time playing in the garden, they grow up with a stronger sense of stewardship for the environment, and with a greater appreciation for nature and green spaces in their lives.

But it’s also important to mention that you don’t need a huge fancy plot to get these benefits. Something as simple as a window planter box or readymade indoor garden kits can bring green garden learning to wherever you are.

If you’re just getting started with gardening, the Royal Horticultural Society has plenty of resources to keep you going.

Girl gardening

The big ideas

Gardening with children after the pandemic

If the idea of gardening seems more appealing than it did a couple years ago, that’s not just you.

You’re feeling what researcher Keith Tidball calls a “biophilic response.” In a 2012 study, he found that people often turn to plants and green spaces when we’re recovering from stressful times — be that an earthquake, a war or a pandemic. Especially now, we could all use a bit of horticultural therapy.

Gardening suppliers have indeed seen a big uptick in sales the past few years, as many of us looked to get a home garden going during lockdown.

But why is it such a good idea to take up gardening in the midst of the pandemic?

Well, we can explain that a few different ways.

  • Gardening is good for our brains. A 2017 study from the journal Preventative Medicine Reports surveyed respondents across four continents and found that regular gardening can help lower levels of anxiety and depression, and boost our physical health and sense of community.
  • Growing plants gives us something to look forward to. “When we sow a seed, we plant a narrative of future possibility,” writes Sue Stuart-Smith in her book The Well-Gardened Mind. Gardening feels more therapeutic these days, and tending to seedlings gives us a welcome sense of growth.
  • Outside is one of the safest places to be right now. As we’ve written about before, plenty of fresh air is one of our best, most readily-available defenses against the coronavirus.

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Good plants to grow with little ones

Right, so you’ve got your planting box all sorted. But what goes in it?

When it comes to gardening with young children, it’s best to start with plants that are pretty hardy, such as fruit trees, so you don’t need a veteran’s green thumb to get rewarding results. Children don’t always have the patience for slow-sprouting seedlings, and it’s always more fun to have some flowers or veggies to celebrate at the end of the season.

Here are a few types of plants that are perfect for growing with children:
  • Plants that offer a sensory experience: Common herbs like basil or rosemary add rich new scents to your garden — and children can taste the leaves, too. The soft, woolly leaves of Lambs’ ears plants are also an enticing sensory experience for young hands, too.
  • Plants you can eat: Like we mentioned above, there’s a good bit of research to suggest that when children grow their own vegetables, it’s easier to get leafy greens on their dinner plates. Peas, lettuce and baby tomatoes are all perfect choices for your garden.
  • Plants that attract butterflies: Nasturtium flowers or sunflowers are two examples of beautiful, easy-to-grow flowers that will bring butterflies over to your garden. In the spring and summer, it’s a great way to talk about how these little pollinators help your flowers and vegetables grow.
Kid playing outdoor

Best tips for gardening with children

Here are a few gardening tips to help you get the best experience with children:
  • Don’t fret about growing any record crops. Strictly speaking, toddlers aren’t expert gardeners. You can expect some overzealous watering, potatoes uprooted a bit too early, or some trampled petunias. That’s alright — it’s more about what they’re learning through this exploratory process.
  • A bit of prep work sets children up for success. Marking off the boundaries of your vegetable beds, making walking paths with wood chips, or setting up wire cages around delicate seedlings will help communicate the structure of your garden to the children, and can help avoid a trampled plant or two along the way.
  • Skip the gardening gloves. With bare hands, children are better able to enjoy the messiness of gardening, and to explore the texture and feel of the soil around them.
  • Give children real-deal gardening tools, not toys. This is more empowering to children, and gives them a stronger sense of responsibility in your garden. It also means that the motor skills and muscle memories they learn in the garden stay relevant as they grow older.
  • Treat worms and bugs as friends. The sight of one teacher freaking out over a spider or earthworm could put off a whole class of children from wanting to play in the garden. Instead, make sure the little ones understand these critters’ importance to growing healthy plants, and treat them as part of the exploratory experience.
  • Let children engage with whatever excites them most. Maybe your little ones really love plucking weeds, or perhaps they’re happiest building a gnome village in the compost pile. Either way, they’re engaged in constructive, active play out in nature. Trying to make things too structured might drain some of the fun from your garden.
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Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

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UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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