Exploring the natural world is a fantastic way to develop and inspire early years. Find out why, and gain practical ideas for how to encourage young children to explore the world of plants

This is an ideal time of year for children of all ages to be outdoors for long periods of time, exploring the natural world around them. Although not all early years settings have access to large gardens, with a little forward planning it is possible to create growing spaces in even the smallest outdoor area. Small raised beds, large planters and grow bags can all be positioned around the outdoor space to enable children to cultivate their own seeds and plants and to experience the pleasure of growing and looking after plants.

Investigating and cultivating the trees, plants and shrubs found around your setting will provide opportunities for children to:

  • develop their natural curiosity for the world around them
  • explore the outside world through first-hand active learning experiences
  • observe carefully, using all their senses
  • build an awareness of the natural world and their responsibilities to other living things
  • develop an understanding of change over time
  • be involved in longer term investigation and exploration
  • be active, and enjoy and appreciate the outdoor environment.

To encourage young children to explore the world of plants it is important to provide the right tools and materials. These would include:

  • child-sized trowels, buckets, wheelbarrows and spades
  • boots and waterproof clothing
  • plastic plant pots, compost, seed trays and planters, an area for digging and planting
  • seeds, bulbs, plants and cuttings
  • magnifiers, viewers and small trays or bags for collecting leaves, seeds and flowers
  • set up magnifiers and good quality drawing materials and paper to encourage children to make close observational drawings
  • cameras to record findings, events and change over time
  • reference books and sources of information on plants, trees and shrubs.

Think about where you are going to store these resources, particularly the larger tools and equipment and, above all, keep them tidy.

Practical ideas

  • Create a herb garden with a variety of plants with different scents and textures which can be enjoyed by all the children, from babies upwards. Good plants to include would be rosemary, sage, lavender, thyme, marjoram, mint, coriander, parsley and chives. Choose a sunny site where the plants will be exposed to the sun for as much of the day as possible. Encourage the children to explore the different textures and the strong scents given off by the herbs – brushing a hand over the plant can often be enough the release the scent.

If you decide to encourage the children to taste the different herbs. make sure they understand that only some plants are edible and that they should not put the leaves or flowers of other plants in their mouths.

  • Grow flowers that are attractive to look at, smell nice or produce unusual seed pods. Petunias, french marigolds, lobelia, fuschias and begonias all grow well in containers and hanging baskets and come in a variety of colours and sizes. Wallflowers, dianthus, freesias and nicotiana all give off beautiful scents while busy lizzies and honesty produce interesting seed pods.
  • Cultivate some fast growing plants such as lettuce, rocket, radishes and other salad crops. Help the children to be involved in all stages of the growing process from preparing the soil to planting the seeds, watering, weeding, thinning out and harvesting. This is a really good opportunity for children to become involved in a long-term experience that will take time to come to fruition.
  • Courgettes and pumpkins are large plants that can take up quite a lot of space but the size of the vegetables they produce can make them very exciting for children. Lots of watering will turn a small courgette into a giant marrow in just a few days.
  • Vegetables that develop underground, such as potatoes and carrots, are interesting to grow because of the excitement they generate when harvested. Pulling up carrots and discovering what has been growing beneath the surface, or digging up a potato plant and seeing how many potatoes you can find, will be memorable experiences which will give children lots to talk about.
  • Helping children to harvest the produce they have grown and then involving them in preparing, cooking and eating it will give them a much better understanding of where food comes from and is an ideal opportunity to talk about the importance of healthy eating.
  • Children’s understanding of sustainability and green living can be developed by setting up a compost bin or wormery to dispose of waste plant material and a water-butt to collect rainwater for watering the plants in the outdoor area.

Links with the EYPS Standards: S8, S11,S12, S16, S19, S28
Links with Ofsted SEF: 3, 4b, c, d, e, f,

This e-bulletin issue was first published in June 2010

About the author: Linda Thornton and Pat Brunton are early years consultants, trainers and authors and edit Early Years Update. www.alcassociates.co.uk