It’s a beautiful experience teaching preschoolers in the garden and watching them connect with nature.
However, the playful, exploratory nature of preschoolers can often devolve well-intentioned lessons into a scattering of children watching butterflies or off eating sorrel (see Top 15 School Garden Plants to Grow). No matter how awry a lesson goes, if children are comfortable, happy, asking questions and even just observing in the garden, we can be satisfied – we’ve done well to establish the garden as an engaging positive space.
It is possible to conduct preschool appropriate garden lessons in ways that grow their positive garden association into an understanding of basic science, art, and social studies concepts.
Research on preschool age children has concluded that the school garden is an “effective educational tool,” with preschoolers demonstrating both an understanding of beginning biology concepts and a respect for the plants, insects and animals living in the garden ecosystem (Midden and Chambers, 2000).
It can be done!
Start with one concept and build on it with supporting ideas and relevant activities. Repetition supports reinforcement of main ideas and concepts, such as a child knowing “what a seed needs to grow”, as well as fortifying their ability to articulate what they’ve learned to educators and to their families. Themes can also encourage reluctant or shy children to participate and engage, motivated by a word, phrase, plant, or tool they now recognise after multiple lessons on the topic. They’ll get interested by the twist you put on each lesson in your unit, while being reassured by the overarching concept of “sunflower” or “worms” in which they are gaining experience and confidence.
Provide proper tools and demonstrate:
Scaffolding children in the garden to complete a certain task is a challenge at any age. Having proper tools and instruments to support the activity is KEY. Most importantly, they serve as physical reminders of the current task. If you tell preschoolers to go observe pollinators in the garden, they may be quickly off digging for worms or picking flowers. Alternatively, if you supply students with magnifying glasses with which to observe the pollinators and paint brushes on which to collect pollen, they’ll be much more task-oriented. Be sure to demonstrate both proper and improper use of tools for safety and best results – have one child demonstrate the action for the group after you demonstrate it yourself. Use the sequence, “I do, we do, you do”:
- “I do, you watch”
- “We do, together”
- “You do, I watch”
Accommodate developing motor skills:
School garden resources like seeds, tools, and plants can get wasted, damaged or maimed. Design tasks suitable for small hands, avoiding seeds that are too small, or opting for pelleted versions of small seeds. Avoid giving children two tools at once, allowing them to practise each separately. Demonstrate proper garden actions repetitively to keep your garden plants from experiencing major trauma. Encourage younger children with less motor finesse to engage in brute garden labour like mulching, adding compost, turning compost, pulling out finished plants, watering, harvesting fruits and vegetables that fall off the plant easily and seeding either large seeds or mass seedings of cover crops or lettuce mix. Older children can partake in all of the above as well as harvesting that requires two gentle hands and more deliberate, spaced out seeding. It’s a good idea to always plant extra of everything, keep extra plants in pots to replace any mangled ones and have patience.
Provide “take homes” when possible:
When resources allow, encourage students to take home a piece of the garden lesson. This serves as fodder for conversation at home. A recipe card from the snack you made together from garden produce, a colouring of a marigold, a seed saved, and even a dirty t-shirt are proud prompts for what was accomplished in the garden. These help bridge the school-to-home connection and give children the confidence to share their new skills or knowledge with their caregivers at home.
Record garden progress:
Before and after photos are powerful when teaching children, who may not fully take in starting points, and therefore may not fully appreciate all their hard work – photos help them reflect. Plants grow slowly and gardening asks for delayed gratification from preschoolers who are still exercising that skill. Having records like photos, a calendar with planting dates, or a graph of growth measurements shows a visual record from which students can draw conclusions.
This colourful part of the life cycle provides a great opportunity for sensory experiences in which children can see, smell, observe and often taste.
- Observe and learn the names of pollinators visiting garden flowers
- Collect pollen from flowers with paint brushes to observe and compare
- Use flower pollen in drawings of the flower
- Compare flowers in various stages from bud to when the flower has passed and has started to form fruit or seeds
- Compare sizes and shapes of different flowers
- Create a flower colouring scavenger hunt (colour in flower on your clipboard as you find it)
- Taste edible flower petals or eat whole edible blossoms like squash or nasturtium
- Infuse water with flowers to taste
- Taste nectar from flowers (in the early morning, soaking recently bloomed flowers, like bottlebrush, in a water glass)
- Press flowers with weights or in books as an art project
Doing a unit on these preschooler-size plants involves growing a variety of microgreens with many colours, shapes, sizes, and growing habits – as well as offering the opportunity for comparison and contrast work while they enjoy very nutritious tastings. Note: many common sprout and microgreen mixes are very ‘spicy’ and mustard-y (noted with * in the list), so be sure to include some sweeter options. Recommended sprouts to try growing on a small, enmasse scale: rainbow swiss chard/silverbeet*, beetroot*, rainbow beetroot*, peas, sunflowers, fenugreek, radish*, purple radish*, basil, purple basil, lemon basil, sorrel, cilantro, borage, dill, fennel.
- Grow 3 or more different types to compare colours, shapes, sizes, and growing habits – tracking their growth on a chart
- Draw pictures of the microgreens as they are often colourful and simple to draw
- Grow microgreens in a glass jar as sprouting seeds or in a tray with soil – or do both methods and compare how they grow
- Sample and record tasting notes of each microgreen
- Discuss what is a microgreen and why are they extra nutritious
- Make different dressing recipes to taste the microgreens in
- Make a microgreen salad and add in other garden vegetables
- Seed miniature trays of microgreens for preschoolers to care for at home
Teach preschoolers about farming and farmers, indigenous sustainable and regenerative farming practices, why we are thankful for farmers and how fun it is to labour in the garden!
- Learn about farms and farmers – our garden is a miniature version of this
- Learn and practise indiginous ways of growing and caring for the garden in a regenerative way
- Learn about and plant companion crops
- Seed and grow cover crops
- Learn what a ‘weed’ is and how to weed the garden properly
- Taste edible weeds
- Mulch the garden to reduce the instance of weeds and protect the soil
- Add compost to the garden around the plants to increase their nutrition
- Learn to use different garden tools properly
- Turn the compost with pitchforks
- Amend the soil with any child-safe minerals
- Save seeds
- Story time: The Vegetables We Eat, Happy Veggies, Tops and Bottoms, and many more!
Learn how rescuing food waste in the compost bin is part of a cycle that nourishes the growth of garden plants, in turn giving us more robust fruits and vegetables to eat.
- Compost food waste after meals and snacks routinely
- Turn the compost pile with pitchforks or hand trowels
- Use worm castings in compost
- Shred paper and cut down to size or rip up worm-appropriate foods for the worm bin
- Make mini composters with recycled tennis ball containers
- Add wood chips, grass clippings, seaweed, or mulch to the compost pile
- Make compost tea and spray it on plants with spray bottles
- Story time: Diary of a Worm
- Grow a ‘Kitchen Scrap Garden’ indoors by re-growing onions, scallions, carrots, radishes, potatoes, beetroot, celery and lettuce from old or leftover bits
- Learn about proper recycling of non-compostable items
High in essential oils, herbs in the garden offer a sensory experience of strong smells and tastes to which children may develop strong reactions and responses.
- Harvest herbs and dry them
- Make herbal tea
- Make an herbal blend of culinary herbs to take home
- Make basil pesto to taste on crackers/chips/noodles
- Have an herb tasting recording likes/dislikes and tasting notes
- Make lavender sachets to take home for placing under pillows
- Compare the smells of different herbs / essential oils of herbs and record what they remind you of or how they make you feel
- Make herby playdough
6. Plant-Specific Themes, For example: Sunflowers:
Children can learn different parts of the plant, the plant life cycle, how to grow a sunflower, how to save its seeds and how to make sunflower related recipes. You can do this with any plant growing in your garden like pumpkins, cucumbers, beans, peas, etc.
- Grow sunflower sprouts enmasse to taste
- Learn the different parts of the sunflower plant
- Grow a variety of sunflower colours to compare
- Observe and learn the names of pollinators that visit sunflowers
- Save seeds from sunflower heads
- Make sunflower seed butter
- Roast sunflower seeds to taste
- Taste sunflower petals
- Story time: The Sunflower House
- Use sunflower leaves and/or seeds/petals to make art
Guide them as they learn what resources seeds need to grow, how each plant develops its own unique seeds, the life cycle of a plant from seed to seed, and how to save, process and store seeds to grow them again.
- Experiment with growing seeds in a variety of conditions
- Save seeds in the garden
- Sort a mix of seeds into piles of the same ones
- Match seeds to the picture of the plant
- Recipes: make seed-base energy balls or sunflower seed butter
- Story time: The Tiny Seed
- Process saved seeds
- Germinate seeds inside in a clear container
- Sow seeds in the garden
- Sow seedlings indoors
- Sow seeds in pots to take home
Many children are fascinated by bugs, so taking the time to develop their interest is well worth it. I would recommend, not lingering on “bad bugs” in the garden and to discourage any insect killing behaviour in favour of showing that all insects have their place in the garden ecosystem – it’s OK if they eat some of the leaves and fruit, we can share and maybe need to plant more next time!
- Take magnifying glasses and look for bugs in the garden with a common garden insect scavenger hunt (colour or tick as they find them)
- Use magnifying glasses to spot evidence of bugs in the garden like holes or scarring on leaves
- Teach them the names of beneficial insects and how they work in the garden
- Learn the life cycle of an insect like a butterfly by creating a habitat to observe the butterfly transition from caterpillar to chrysalis then release the butterfly back into the garden
Another fun way to add thematic elements to the school garden is through themed garden areas like native foods garden, butterfly garden, flower garden, dinosaur garden, herb or sensory garden, pizza garden, trellis garden, salsa garden and salad garden.
I hope this gives you some inspiration for gardening ideas with preschoolers. Have fun and garden on!