Gardening to Enhance Early Childhood and Help Children Grow

Office of Head Start Director on the value of gardening

National Head Start Association
6 min readNov 8, 2019

There are so many lessons to be learned in the garden. Knowledge of nutritious, fresh 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. NHSA and Scotts Miracle Gro have partnered in the Gro More Good Gardens 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.

Aligning with the Head Start Early Learning Outcomes Framework

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!


Gardening with Young Children

Use the following resources to discover the benefits of gardening for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers.

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.

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).



National Head Start Association

NHSA is a nonprofit organization committed to the belief that every child, regardless of circumstances at birth, has the ability to succeed in life.