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 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 a matter of 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, chat about and nurture seedlings as they grow!
If you do have some outdoor space with earth or big enough pots, take this a step further by transferring or planting seedlings and help them to grow. And, share the learning process by tagging photos with #Tinkergarten and #PlantASeed. There are endless lessons to learn and share, no matter how far you take your seeds.
- Gather materials and get inspired: Get a few small pots, some soil or just dirt from the ground and one or more packets of seeds. We love herbs (e.g. thyme, basil, chives) since they grow easily, stimulate senses and are tasty to harvest. We also love to plant zinnia's after we read Christie Matheson's Plant the Tiny Seed.
- Introduce the idea: It’s quite something to wonder, from where do living things come (We all look forward to hearing, "Mommy/Daddy, where did I come from, right?"). So, we introduced the activity 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.
- Set up soil: If your family composts, you can use or add some compost to your soil. For a sensory stimulating twist, get a large container and crush up a few eggshells with your soil (eggshells provide enriching calcium and are super satisfying to crush!). Put soil into the pots so that they are nearly full and loosely packed. Add water to the soil before you add the seeds so that the soil is moist but not soggy.
- Investigate seeds: Take a minute or two to play with and observe the seeds. Put a few in your hands. Roll some between your fingers. Notice things. You can save a few and put them in a ziploc with a wet paper towel and place the bundle in a shady spot for a great parallel investigation.
- Sprinkle seeds: 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. Put a little more soil on top. Mark the pots so you can track the seedlings, if you have different types of seeds.
- Give water and warmth: Seeds need water, air and warmth to germinate. Place them in a spot with plenty of sunlight, and keep the soil moist but not soggy by adding small amounts of water often. Such a small amount of soil gains and loses water quickly!
- Observe and notice: Visit the plants once a day or so to care for and observe them. It will feel like a wait, then finally, one day, there were noticeable bits of green to care for—a great way to develop patience, and such a thrill!
- Notice: Learn just by observing and talking together about what you see and how your seedlings change over the days. Look at the differences between the simple “seed” leaf or leaves (known as cotyledons) and the “true” leaves of the plant that follow. Pull out a seedling or two to observe both its root and its shoot.
- Draw or photograph what you notice each day, so you can go back to look at the change over time. Share photos using #Tinkergarten and #PlantASeed, and look at the photos that families from across the country are sharing.
- Measure: Do not expect wee ones to understand standard measurement, but model measuring how many centimeters tall your seedlings are and talk about it with your child, sharing your excitement and interest in this information. If your child is interested in return, find out how many centimeters tall your child is too!
What next for your seedlings?
Seedlings can be hard to nurture into full plants, and there is much to learn no matter what path your seedling takes:
- Transplant your seedlings: If you would like to keep growing your seedings, wait until they have several weeks of growth, then either transplant them to larger indoor pots or start to prepare them for planting outdoors.
- Acclimating seedlings: If your seedlings have grown up indoors, start to put the pots outdoors for long periods of time for a few days, avoiding rough weather days. This will prepare them for successful planting in their new outdoor home.
- Thin out your seedlings: If you have many seedlings growing right next to one another, you need to gently pull seedlings so that a only a few remain with the space they need to thrive. It can seem hard to pull seedlings, but it is actually a great way to observe the full seedling, and you can still use the pulled seedlings to observe how the plants in our world that do not survive change and turn back into soil.
- If all seedlings peter out: You have learned so much just in the planting, sprouting and observing. Plus, you really can’t feel badly. Such a tiny fraction of the seeds that plants produce actually sprout, never mind survive the bumps of early life to thrive as a plant. It’s the way nature is designed, and it may actually help you and your kids care for the plants around us even more to realize what a rare thing it was for each of them to make it. Finally, a lesson in composting is a fine way to close this exploration, which is hopefully the first of many times you’ll plant and learn from seeds!
Extend the learning:
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 the life cycle of plants and just a bit about 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.