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Children gain so many benefits from time spent outdoors, and especially time spent interacting with nature. As well as being great for health and wellbeing, time spent outdoors actually supports the development of self-regulation.
With an increasing focus on the importance of caring for our environment, and with the effects of climate change becoming ever more apparent, encouraging the next generation to ‘grow their own’ is a fantastic way to connect children with the natural world.
On top of that, the impact of the last few years of pandemic lockdowns has meant some children are experiencing delays in their physical development. Gardening offers great opportunities for fine and gross motor activities, with children naturally being more physically active when they’re outside. The time spent outdoors will boost children’s Vitamin D levels, too.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at how gardening can be weaved in and out of your curriculum, and exactly what plants are best to grow with little hands.
If you’re thinking that gardening doesn’t fit in with your curriculum, you’ll be pleasantly surprised that children can engage in gardening and flourish in their learning.
You can get growing with children by using containers, even if you don’t have access to a garden area. In fact, growing in containers is often a better and more practical option for early years gardening.
Growing in pots means children can take their plants home with them to grow on or to plant out with parents. It’s easier to keep pests out when growing in pots, and you don’t need to worry about cats and other animals soiling your growing space. Children also love decorating and watering their own pots, so you can also turn it into a creative activity.
Many fruits and vegetables grow well in containers: from potatoes to carrots, and strawberries to blueberries. The great thing about growing in pots is that you can control the growing medium to suit different plants. In addition, because pots are raised up, they are more easily accessible for small children.
It’s tempting to want your outdoor area to look pristine and weed free, but leaving part of your space as a slightly overgrown patch is actually important for attracting wildlife. Some of the most important habitat and food plants for insects are those that we would normally call ‘weeds’.
In order to make your garden attractive to wildlife, and also extra useful for learning, try and create bug friendly spaces where spiders, woodlice and snails can hide. You could build a ‘bug hotel’ with your children to support their learning about habitats.
But what plants are good for attracting insects and bugs?
Top tip: Remember when growing to be careful with any plants that are poisonous, and tell your children never to eat any part of a plant without checking with you that it is edible first. For instance, both tomatoes and potatoes have poisonous leaves. Although you’re probably unlikely to eat them, both nettles and dandelions are actually edible.
Ideal plants to grow with children are those that are relatively quick, easy to grow, or that offer a special feature. When growing crops, aim for ones that can be eaten straight from the ground or the plant, ones that are versatile enough to be used in different ways, or ones that you know your children love to eat.
Here are a few easy grow options to start you off with:
Just remember to consider the size of the fully grown plants and remember to leave enough space between them - it’s easy to forget how big they can get when you’re looking at tiny seeds.
The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) runs an excellent School Gardening Awards Scheme. The award is open to Early Years settings of all shapes and sizes, as well as home educators. The scheme helps you build your knowledge and skill, with vouchers and free resources on offer as you progress through the levels.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has an excellent education offer, with an active Twitter account at @RSPB_Learning, and a ‘Wild Challenge’ award for schools and settings. There is also an annual ‘Big Schools Birdwatch’ event each January, with free resources to help you spot and identify the birds that visit your setting.
If you’re looking to develop or revamp your outside area, get in touch with local businesses to source free or discounted supplies. When we built our preschool garden, we received free materials from local building suppliers and £100 in vouchers from the local garden centre. A trip to spend our vouchers made an excellent educational day out for the children. The local press also ended up featuring our garden makeover, with ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures in an article about our build!
Sue Cowley is an author, trainer and presenter who has helped to run her local early years setting for over a decade. Find out more at www.suecowley.co.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.