December 10, 2019

Gardening to enhance early childhood and help children grow

Office of Head Start Director on the value of gardening

There are so many lessons to be learned in the garden. Knowledge of nutritious food, an understanding of the natural world, a sense of the hard work it takes to watch something grow––these are all lessons kids can learn by getting their hands dirty in the garden. We’ve partnered with the National Head Start Association in the Gro More Good  initiative to bring the wonderful experience of gardening, and all the life lessons that come with it, to Head Start children and families.

We’re thrilled to share this blog post by Office of Head Start Director Deborah Bergeron with ideas about all the ways outdoor play and gardening benefit the youngest learners.

by Dr. Deborah Bergeron, the Director of the Office of Head Start

Outdoors is an essential place for children’s learning. It can – and should – be a rich part of your program’s daily curriculum delivery. We know that being outside improves health and supports children’s overall development. They learn about their world by observing, exploring and interacting with its natural elements. While outdoors, children often engage in complex imaginative play and much needed physical activity. 

Providing quality outdoor space connects children – and us – to nature and the outdoor world. Intentionally planning the outdoor area leads to exciting opportunities that engage children in meaningful tasks and projects. While “built” playgrounds consisting of play equipment are the norm, they are not required or by themselves adequate.  Children’s work and play thrives in well-designed areas that can include hills, vegetation, and natural climbing opportunities, such as partly buried log “balance beams”. The play area can reflect the program’s natural climate, whether it is temperate, tropical, arid, or cold. It can provide shade and offer shelters from wind or rain as needed.

Working with children and families to create, build, plant and tend gardens is another great way to connect children and families to nature. The garden, like the play area, can align with geographic area. Programs with multiple sites can find a centralized area for the garden and support ongoing field trips by each of their centers. Urban sites can create roof top gardens or use raised beds and containers to naturalize concrete areas. Reach out to community partners, such as gardening centers or local farmers, for ideas and support. 

Gardening supports holistic learning. Below are examples of the many ways gardening can support young children’s learning across the various learning domains:

Perceptual, motor and physical development

Children are tactile and sensory learners. They breathe in the fresh air and scents of plants and flowers. They experience the elements of weather and seasons. They practice balance by moving their bodies across grass and paths, through sand and soil, and over hills and valleys. They develop motor skills to hold and use tools. Growing herbs and produce can encourage healthy eating habits which help their bodies grow.

Language and communication

Reading about gardening and talking the growing process can expand children’s vocabulary. Rich conversations support their understanding of the world and enhances their cognitive abilities. Gardening offers lots of chances to write. Children can draw images and scribe labels to mark the various plantings. They can graph the heights as plants grow and chart the differences of leaves and flowers.

Cognition

Being outdoors and gardening helps children witness wildlife and lifecycle of plants. They observe the textures of tree bark, flower petals, plant stems, and leaves. They notice and compare the shapes, sizes, and weight of seeds, foliage, and produce. They solve problems as they figure out ways to pry away rocks and clear rubble. They use scientific reasoning to predict which seed will grow what vegetable.  This is exciting and interesting work for young scientists and mathematicians!

Approaches to learning

Starting and tending a garden encourages curiosity. Adults can wonder with children and watch what happens after planting seeds. The tactile and sensory experiences of gardening can help children self-regulate. The feel of the soil and smell of the earth can bring comfort. Gardens can help children begin to work independently as they plant seeds or pick produce. They have practice in patience as they wait for seeds to sprout and the benefit of delayed gratification as they wait for produce to ripen. 

Social & emotional

For young children, gardening can support emotional functioning as they express the delight or disappointment when plants thrive or struggle. They can work with adults and peers as they do various tasks and with practice begin to do more of these independently.

For expectant families, starting seeds can start a conversation around what it means to take care of something else. Learning about the individual needs of a plant can introduce the idea of understanding the individual needs of others.

Imagine the immense sense of satisfaction for children and families as they taste the delicious foods they planted, cared for, and harvested. Whether you create a large garden bed or intimate potted garden with children and families, think of all the ways you help them have fun and grow!  

Resources on gardening with young children

Resources on nature-based outdoor spaces

It’s important to be outside with children and families. Use the following resources to create nature-based outdoor spaces that inspire children’s curiosity, exploration and discovery.

Dr. Deborah Bergeron is the Director of the Office of Head Start and the Office of Early Childhood Development. This blog was first published on the Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center (ECLKC).