I started vegetable gardening as a child, helping in my parent’s garden and later when I was at school, participating in a yearly gardening programme. The skills I learnt in childhood, while not used during my teenage and early adult years, were not forgotten. When I got my first home, one of the first things I did was start a vegetable garden and the skills and knowledge I had learnt as a child came back to me.
To develop the lifelong skill of gardening, young children need to be offered ongoing and sustained opportunities to garden. Embedding gardening in the curriculum so that it becomes part of every day life is one way to achieve this.
If we apply a gardening lens to Te Whāriki, the Early Childhood Curriculum for Aotearoa New Zealand, we find it woven throughout the curriculum. In fact, gardening is specifically mentioned on page 32 under Belonging as an example of one of the skills in caring for the environment.
The benefits of gardening for young children’s learning can be found throughout the principles of Empowerment, Holistic Development, Family and Community, and Relationships in Te Whāriki. Gardening fosters empowerment as it provides opportunities for children to develop skills and knowledge in an area that interests them. It fosters holistic development as they grow their capabilities across all dimensions. Gardening fosters relationships with people, places and things, and if fosters connections between the centre, family, and the community (pages 18-21).
So what might this look like in an early childhood setting?
Regular and often is the key to successful and sustainable gardening. Involve children in every step of the process, from planning what to plant and where, to sowing the seeds, raising the seedlings, harvesting, using the produce and even saving seed for next season. In my experience children love to garden. They love to be involved in watering, taking care of their plants, and even weeding. When this happens on regular basis it becomes part of the everyday curriculum.
But there is more to gardening than taking care of plants. Gardening offers children the opportunity to be scientists, mathematicians, linguists, all while being physically active. And it helps them develop their social and emotional skills. Some examples of how are listed below:
Science - There are life cycles to be learned about - the magic of learning how to take a seed, sow it and care for it so it turns into a seedling and then a plant that produces flowers or food. Discovering seasonal differences and why a plant that grows in summer doesn’t grow in winter.
Maths - Take those magical seeds and measure the space they need between them when they are sown or count how many seeds we need to sow. Compare the different shapes and sizes of the seeds. Count the number of days until the seed germinates. Measure the height of the seedlings periodically until they are mature plants. Make some rain gauges and measure how much rain falls.
Language and Literacy - Use correct gardening terms and listen as young children become familiar with and use words such as seed, seedling, trowel, germinate, fertiliser. Discuss the shape and size of seeds as you sow them. Look at pictures of the plants and write plant names on labels. Read stories about gardening.
Motor skills - As children use garden tools, pull out weeds, or turn the compost tumbler they are engaging their gross motor skills, developing strength and muscle mass. When they pick up seeds and seedlings they are engaging their fine motor skills and strengthening their fingers in a pincer grip.
Social skills - Gardening as group in early childhood encourages children turn-take and share. They wait for their turn when there are more children than tools or space at the table or around the garden. They take turns to use the tools and containers containing soil as they pot up their plants or sow their seeds. They help their friends who are not as skilled at gardening.
Emotional skills - When children are engaged in regular and sustained gardening experiences they develop a sense of pride and responsibility, and respect for the garden. They monitor it. They remind teachers that it needs to be watered. They are excited when they can harvest food they have grown from seed. They develop confidence in their own abilities.
When children get the opportunity to fully engage in regular, on-going gardening they become interested, excited and knowledgeable. They take their learning home and share it with their families. Embedding gardening into everyday curriculum will lead to life skills that children can take with them as they grow into adulthood.