Understanding the complex lives and lifecycles of plants is a lifetime’s worth of work that can begin in early childhood as children feel the texture of seeds dotting a strawberry, watch a maple seed twirling down, or open a sugar snap pea pod to count the seeds inside. In John McCutcheon’s song, “Kindergarten Wall,” a seed-planting activity is included in a list of important things to remember from our kindergarten year.
As children notice seeds teachers may talk with them, asking children to describe or draw what they notice, and giving some information, such as the word “seed” and the name of the parent plant and fruit. If this is followed by seed sprouting or planting opportunities, the experience may confirm what children have been told about seeds: if you plant a seed it will grow. But what if it doesn’t grow?
This spring I planted two kinds of zinnias, a smaller and a larger variety. For some reason only a few of the larger variety sprouted while almost all of the smaller variety grew well. I used the same potting soil, the same newspapers as pots, watered them from the same container, and put them in the same windowsill to sprout. Since I had seeds of the larger variety left in the packet I did a simple germination test, taught to me by a college roommate who was an agriculture major, by putting the seeds in a fold of a damp paper towel in a plastic bag. During the week I checked on the seeds and kept the paper towel damp. Only 20% of the seeds sprouted. Sprouting seeds in a damp paper towel rather than in soil keeps the process visible for children to see. After a period of time you can plant only those seeds that sprouted into soil. Be aware that early plant structures may break easily so don’t count on all sprouting seeds surviving children’s handling.
When children are very interested in caring for sprouting seeds you may decide to help each child plant a container and label it with their name so they can take it home. If there is a chance that some seeds won’t sprout, or will receive uneven care and not survive well, consider having children take turns planting seeds in a large tray of soil so everyone can jointly care for the plants, surviving or not. Those seedlings that thrive can be transplanted into individual containers or the ground.
Exploring seeds introduces the diversity of plants (so many different sizes and shapes of seeds!) and the variety within a plant genus (consider the shapes of seeds from plants that grow pumpkins and those that grow other squash). See the “Teaching strategies” section at Peep and the Big Wide World with videos of both family child care and center-based educators talking with the children in their care. One idea is to create a “seed museum.” Children can do this with seeds they find in their food or bring from home.
Learning about the needs of plants (and animals) is part of the Next Generation Science Standards, assessed in performance expectation K-LS1-1, “Use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals (including humans) need to survive,” and the Disciplinary Core Idea, LS1.C, “Organization for Matter and Energy Flow in Organisms, All animals need food in order to live and grow. They obtain their food from plants or from other animals. Plants need water and light to live and grow.”
As the weather warmed I transplanted all the zinnia seedlings out into the garden where I hope their nectar and seeds will provide food for insects and birds. Relationships between plants and animals can be part of an exploration of seeds. Making observations of animals interacting with plants takes time, over many occasions, some planned and others by chance, but all made possible by teacher preparation.
The question, “What seeds do we eat?” is examined in children’s books. There are many wonderful books about children spending time in gardens but not as many focused on the seeds we eat. Stories such as The Little Red Hen include information about the seeds we eat (wheat). Both fiction and non-fiction books help children make sense of their explorations.
Green Bean! Green Bean! by Patricia Thomas, illustrated by Trina L. Hunner (2016 Dawn Publications)
How a Seed Grows by Helene J. Jordan (1992 HarperCollins Children’s Books)
In the Garden with Dr. Carver by Susan Grigsby, illustrated by Nicole Tadgell (2010 Albert Whitman & Company)
Plant a Little Seed by Bonnie Christensen (2012 Roaring Brook)
Seed, Soil, Sun: Earth’s Recipe for Food by Cris Peterson with photos by David R. Lundquist (2012 Boyds Mills Press)
Seeds by Vijaya Khisty Bodach (2007 Capstone Press)
Seeds by Ken Robbins (2005 Theneum Books for Young Readers)
Seeds and Seedlings: Nature Close-Up Photographs by Dwight Kuhn, text by Elaine Pascoe (1996 Blackbirch Press)
What’s in the Garden? by Marianne Berkes, illustrated by Cris Arbo (2013 Dawn Publications)
Page Keeley’s formative assessment probes help educators determine what children think about a topic before they explore it. Asking the questions and discussing the images of the probes helps to reveal the ideas students have about objects, organisms, or phenomena. Although they are designed for elementary and older students, preschool teachers can use them for group discussions and smaller conversations. Children’s initial claims and reasons for their ideas provide direction for exploration and instruction. See Keeley’s Formative Assessment Probe columns:
Needs of Seeds in the February 2011 Science and Children 48(6)
Seeds in a Bag November 2014 Science and Children 52(3)
Big and Small Seeds, July 2016 Science and Children 53(9)
“Students’ Ideas About Plants: Results from a National Study” by Charles R. Barman, Mary Stein, Natalie S. Barman, and Shannan McNair (September 2003 issue of Science and Children) reports on research by teachers about elementary and middle school students’ often limited ideas about plants. With additional first-hand experiences and later experiments, children can revise their early ideas, such as “Sunlight helps plants grow by keeping them warm,” and “Trees and grass are not plants.”
Early childhood educators can provide many first hand-hand experiences, and help children investigate seeds, the lives of plants, and their lifecycles so in upper elementary and middle school children will “…remember the seed in the little paper cup, First the root goes down and then the plant grows up! (©1988 by John McCutcheon. Published by Appalsongs).