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Planting seeds

Age: 3 to 8+ Time: 1 hour+
Materials: seeds, planting soil, pots
Skills: Curiosity, Making Connections, Naturalist

As long as you stop to look, spring offers a spectacular show—the flowering trees and plants are hard to miss and always impress. Meanwhile, a quieter, even more powerful miracle goes on underground spring through fall as tiny seeds sprout to generate new life. Even the mighty Sequoia, arguably the largest living thing on Earth, starts from a seed no bigger than a grain of wheat. This simple but utterly mind-blowing process is right there for you and your kids to experience.

If you are in the countryside with lots of garden, great. Or if you are like us, smack in the middle of the city but with ample window sills, great again. It only takes a few pots, some potting soil, seeds and water. In only a few days, you’ll begin to bear the fruits (well, first leaves) of your labor, as shoots will begin to emerge, providing endless opportunity to observe, dialogue, name and nurture as they grow!

If you do have a garden, yard or (shh, don’t tell) a great local park like ours, we recommend taking this a step further by also sowing seeds outdoors in the real earth. It’s a great way to extend the learning and yet another reason to keep going back outdoors.

The Guide

With loads of ways to sprout seeds, we chose a super simple protocol:

  1. Gather materials: Get 6-10 small pots, a bag of potting soil, a hand trowel (small gardening shovel) and a few different kinds of seeds. We chose herbs (thyme, basil, cilantro and chives) since they grow easily and could be fun (and tasty) to harvest.
  2. Introduce the idea: Every kid wonders from where living things came (We all look forward to hearing, "Mommy/Daddy, where did I come from?"). So, we introduced the activity to by asking, “Where do you think all of these plants come from?" and, "What does it take to start a plant? to grow a plant?” Then, off to the races with some dirt, seeds and water to watch it all unfold.
  3. Investigate seeds: Take a minute or two to play with and observe the seeds. Pour them into your and your kids' hands. Roll some between your fingers. Notice things. Save a few and put them in a ziploc with a wet paper towel and place the bundle in the sun. A great parallel investigation!
  4. Set up pots: Put dirt into the pots so that they are nearly full and loosely packed. Add water (ideally lukewarm) to the soil before you add the seeds so that the soil is moist but not soggy.
  5. Sprinkle seeds (trying to help kids not pour them out): Poke holes with a pencil tip. Then, drop seeds into the holes. You can always poke the seeds down with the pencil since kids have dubious aim.
  6. Make markers: Mark the pots so you can track the seedlings. We used twigs and potato-peeled a nice writing surface.
  7. Give water and warmth: Place them in a sunny place and keep them moist, but not soggy. Seeds only need water, air and warmth to germinate.
  8. Visit and notice: We decided we would visit the plants each morning to care for and observe them, making sure we made it a daily ritual. Finally, on day 7, there were noticeable bits of green to care for!
  9. Learn more about plants: Learn just by observing, measuring, counting, sketching and/or talking together about what comes up and how it changes over the days. Transplant your seedlings to larger pots and watch them grow into plants. Harvest and taste the plants, if edible. Connect to literature by reading books like Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss, The Tiny Seed by Eric Carle, or How Groundhog’s Garden Grew by Lynned Cherry.

Why is this activity great for kids?

Once your seeds start to sprout, kids can use them to practice observing, measuring, and even experimenting, giving a foundation in scientific inquiry. Young kids will learn through exposure while older kids can learn new vocabulary and make connections to things they have already learned. Even if all you do is plant, care for and watch your seeds and seedlings closely, kids will develop their inner naturalists as they build a foundation of understanding about the miracle of birth, the life cycle of plants and the survival of both a single living thing and an entire species.

Teaching kids the art of patience and persistence pays off big time—it's been proven by grandmothers and researchers for generations (If you haven't heard of it, you've got to check out the Marshmallow Experiment). Although not long from an adult’s perspective, the time required for seeds to sprout (about a week) is long enough for kids to struggle to remain interested. In this age of instant gratification, it is hard to find ways for your kids to practice waiting that have such a great payoff as waiting for seeds to sprout.

Lastly, there are lots of reasons to get your kids playing and digging in the dirt. Dirt was ranked one of the 5 best toys of all time by Wired Magazine’s Geek Dad—and for very good reasons. Kids can play with dirt in endless ways, and it is widely available at no cost. Handling a small gardening shovel and packing soft dirt into pots also helps kids develop fine motor skills. Experts even argue that dirt is actually good for kids’ health.


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Do It Yourself

We think all families should be learning outside. Try this activity with your child and begin to see the power in outdoor, play-based learning. Have fun!

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