By Dr. Deborah Bergeron
Outdoors is an essential place for children’s learning. It can and should be a rich part of your program’s daily curriculum delivery. 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 may 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 areas. 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 rooftop 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 Head Start Early Learning Outcomes Framework (ELOF) 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 that help their bodies grow.
Language and Communication
Reading about gardening and talking about the growing process can expand children’s vocabulary. Rich conversations support their understanding of the world and enhance 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.
Being outdoors and gardening helps children get a closer look at wildlife and the 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 may bring comfort. Gardens can help children begin to work independently as they plant seeds or pick produce. They practice patience as they wait for seeds to sprout and experience the benefit of delayed gratification as they wait for produce to ripen.
Social and Emotional Development
For young children, gardening can support emotional functioning as they express delight or disappointment when plants thrive or struggle. They can work with adults and peers on various tasks and, with practice, begin to do more of these independently.
For expectant families, starting seeds can begin 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 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
Use the following resources to discover the benefits of gardening for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers.
- Childhood in the Garden: A Place to Encounter Natural and Social Diversity explores the important role of the garden in children’s learning.
- News You Can Use: Outdoor Spaces offers ideas on how to create outdoor spaces that are engaging for infants and toddlers. Learn to set up spaces for families using community resources such as parks, gardens, and nearby schools.
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.
- Affordable Settings and Elements: Ideas for Cost Effective Solutions shares ideas for easy-to-find materials to naturalize and enrich children’s outdoor play spaces.
- The Nature-based Learning and Development video series and resources can help you plan successful nature-based activities that support children’s math, science, and language and literacy development.
- News You Can Use: Take It Outside offers ideas on how to plan for time spent outside with infants and toddlers as well as support their learning.
- Use the Outdoor Play Space Assessment tool to rate play spaces or to create new ones:
- Spending Time Outdoors Matters for Infants and Toddlers! is a six-minute podcast that explains the benefits of infants and toddlers spending quality time outdoors.
- 10 Tips to Enhance Your Outdoor Play Space will help bring your outdoor space to life and provide endless play and learning opportunities for children.
- 25 Easy Ideas for Nature Play for Early Childhood Centers offers easy and affordable suggestions to enhance nature play, including common materials and plants for outdoor areas, even limited spaces.
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).