Understanding the world: Well watered

Now is the perfect time to talk to children about how plants grow from seeds and the conditions they need to flourish. Let them loose outdoors with a watering can to discover the joys of caring for their very own garden.

The activities here are all suitable for children working with adults in small groups and for two year-olds-plus, with a little help.

Playing and exploring

  • Children have fun using their senses of smell and taste to explore
  • They incorporate herbs into their familiar play activities
  • They have a go at investigating foods

Plant a herb garden

You will need: Herb seeds suitable for planting in spring, small herb plants, simple gardening tools, compost, containers, if not growing in beds.

Even if you don't have any outdoors space for planting, you can still make your own herb garden by planting herbs in containers. It's a good idea to plant both a selection of herbs from seed and also have a few small plants ready for planting. This way children have all the benefit of experiencing the full growing cycle but have some little plants to look after while they wait for their seeds to grow. You can sow herbs such as chives, coriander, dill, mint and parsley directly into the ground or in containers at this time of year and these are good varieties to get started with – being easy growers.

Once you have your plants, let children help you snip a few leaves before crushing in the hand to release the scent. What does the smell remind children of? You could also let children take turns at crushing some leaves with a pestle and mortar to really release the fragrance, and you could also wash a few leaves for children to nibble. What do children think of the taste?

Active learning

  • Children immerse themselves in examining bugs
  • They have a go at mastering the skills needed to plant seeds
  • They observe insect life first hand

Planting a butterfly garden

You will need: child-size gardening tools – trowels, sieves, rakes, watering cans, compost, nasturtium seeds and planters – if you don't have flower beds.

First talk about butterflies, moths and caterpillars, and how butterflies and moths like to feed on nectar from flowers. Explain that most butterflies are active during the day, while most moths are nocturnal. Plus the fact that all moth's and butterflies' life cycles progress from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis (butterfly) or cocoon (moth).

It's a good idea to include host plants for caterpillars and nectar plants for butterflies and moths. One of the best flowering plants to grow here is nasturtiums, as not only do they attract butterflies and moths, they're also very attractive to the cabbage white butterfly in particular, which loves to lay its bright yellow eggs on the underside of nasturtium leaves. The seeds of the flowers are nice and large, making them easy for young children to handle.

They are also very easy to grow, are not fussy about poor soil quality, are perfectly safe for children, and look lovely too. If you have a flower bed available for planting, children can have lots of fun preparing the soil ready for their seeds. Let them have a go at raking the soil, removing big pebbles and weeds and sieving soil.

If your pre-school doesn't have access to a growing space, nasturtiums will grow very happily in any old tubs you have available, just make sure they are free of any chemicals. Make a few drainage holes in the bottom of tubs, add a few pebbles to help with drainage, then fill with potting compost before planting seeds.

Once the planting area is ready, let children use a seed dibber or old pencil to make a hole in the soil before dropping in their seed and covering back over with soil. A light watering will get seeds off to a good start and in ten to 12 days you should see your first shoots peeping through the soil.

Support children to take turns in watering the seedlings as needed and ask older children if they'd like to draw the seeds throughout their stages of development as a record of their nasturtium's progress. Once the flowers appear keep a keen eye out for pollinators visiting the flowers and don't forget to look out for eggs and caterpillars.

Dough table

A really good use of herbs, either those grown yourself or shop bought, is to include some with your play dough. Place a bowl containing some sprigs of fresh herbs and some play scissors along with your play dough so children can snip bits off to mix with the dough, the smell is lovely and it adds a whole new sensory dimension to the activity.

Encourage children to use rolling pins to roll the dough which will help crush up the herbs and release their fragrance.

Creating and thinking critically

  • Children predict outcomes in a planting experiment
  • They make links between the results of their experiment and the wider world
  • They enjoy working independently

Planting sunflowers experiment

Mainly planted from mid-April to the end of May, sunflowers are a perfect plant for early years children to grow, with their big seeds and huge flower heads they actually look like a child's drawing of a flower come to life.

You will need: sunflower seeds; simple gardening tools.

The idea is to plant seeds in different locations to see if this makes a difference to their progress. Start by planting some seeds in a sunny area by simply pressing the seeds into the ground, covering over with soil and watering.

Next, plant a few seeds in a semi-shaded area and finally a shady area.

In about seven to ten days little sprouts should be seen poking through the soil. Once seedlings have their second set of leaves, thin plants to about two feet apart and water regularly.

Children can visit the plants to observe their progress, draw the seedlings and talk about the reasons why some plants have grown faster than others. This is a great opportunity to talk to children about how plants grow from seeds, the conditions needed for plants to grow, and all the different types of plants there are in the world.

Talk about how plants need light, warmth and water to grow well and how this can explain the difference in progress when looking at their sunflower plants. Also, do children think that it might be difficult to grow plants in countries where there is very little rain? Or where it is very cold?

Later in the year, when flowers have died back you'll be left with lots of sunflower seeds – this is a great way to show children the magical lifecycle of plants.

EYFS Early Learning Goals

There are lots of ways you can address physical development, particularly with regard to Moving and Handling: ‘Children use both large and small muscle groups, including the small muscle groups used for pen holding and writing skills, plus lots of tool use – trowels, rakes, watering cans etc’.

Also observe how – ‘Children show good control and co-ordination in large and small movements. They move confidently in a range of ways, safely negotiating space. They handle equipment and tools effectively, including pencils for writing.’

Useful resources

  • Jasper's Beanstalk by Nick Butterworth (Hodder Children's Books)
  • The Tiny Seed by Eric Carle (Puffin Books)
  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar: Touch and Feel Playbook by Eric Carle (Puffin Books)
  • Planning For The Early Years: Gardening And Growing: How To Plan Learning Opportunities That Engage And Interest Children by Alistair Bryce-Clegg, (Practical Pre-School Books)
  • The Early Years Gardening Handbook: A Step-By-Step Guide To Creating A Working Garden For Your Early Years Setting by Sue Ward (Practical Pre-School Books)

Key learning points

  • Children learn how to grow and care for plants
  • They learn that insects choose habitats beneficial to themselves and their young
  • They learn the names and uses of gardening tools and practise using them
  • Children learn that plants require specific conditions to grow well and how not having the right environment can affect their development

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