Here’s a topic worth rolling up your sleeves for. But if you don’t have a garden to work with, no worries! So many of these activities can be done indoors, with just a window and a sill (or a little table in the sun). Learning about plants is also a wonderful way to encourage kids to try new foods and find joy in fruits, vegetables, and herbs. There is something wonderful about being able to pick a mint leaf, say, off a plant and eat it right away. Or even simply studying the foods you’re eating as you’re eating them! Studying plants is a wonderful invitation to look closely and to notice. My hope is that many of these books and activities will encourage kids to feel more of a connection to the earth and to feel a sense of pride in our job as caretakers of the planet.
What Kids Will Do
In these explorations, kids might…
- start a Nature Journal
- identify plants in their gardens and create a species map
- sprout seeds and observe growing roots
- make leaf cyanotypes or Nature Prints
- press flowers
- make leaf rubbings
- cook with vegetables and herbs
- grow mushrooms
- write secret messages with flowers
- and more
(Designed for kids preschool-1st/2nd grade, though many materials and activities might be of interest to older children and adults, too.)
- Trees, Leaves, Flowers & Seeds, DK Smithsonian [Amazon | Bookshop] — A comprehensive reference book for children about plants, filled with wonderful photographs and information (good for younger children).
- Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees, Franck Prevot and Aurélia Fronty [Amazon | Bookshop] — This biography of Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner and environmental activist Wangari Maathai is an excellent introduction to environmental activism and the magnificent impact one person’s commitment and vision can have.
- Because of an Acorn, Lola M. Schaefer, Adam Schaefer, and Frann Preston-Gannon [Amazon | Bookshop] — A lovely picture book about ecosystems.
Read: What Is a Tree? (DK 108), Deciduous or Evergreen? (Trees, Leaves DK 109)
Activity: Make a Nature Journal. We used these very large blank ones and decorated the covers. You can find excellent tips on nature journals from the Natural History Museum here.
Activity: In the Nature Journal, catalog the trees in your own yard, divided into columns for deciduous and evergreen. You can use the iNaturalist app (free) to identify ones you don’t know. (Take a photo, then select “What did you see? View suggestions.”) Children can also submit photos of things in their garden for research purposes.
Read: What Is a Leaf? (Trees Leaves DK 30-35); Leaves: A Food Factory (I Ate Sunshine 16)
Watch: Travel Deep Inside a Leaf (turn on CC)
Activity: Collect tree leaves from the yard, examine them with magnifying glasses and/or microscopes, then trace them in the Nature Journal and do leaf rubbings (newsprint or very thin paper is best). Cut out the leaf rubbings and glue them into the journal. Label everything if you can!
Activity (alternative): Coloring and cutting practice with leaf templates (sample here).
Activity: Press tree leaves with a microwave flower press or by sandwiching leaves between absorbent paper (paper bags or newsprint paper) inside books, then stacking more books on top. (Microwave pressing is nearly instant, but you’ll wait a couple of weeks for traditional pressing.) Pressed leaves can be glued into the Nature Journal with regular white glue or rubber cement.
Read: How Do Seeds Grow (DK 20), Seed Shapes (DK 22)
Watch: Acorn seed short film
Activity: Collect tree seeds from your yard & seeds from your kitchen, then draw some of them in the Nature Journal.
Watch: Each Tree Is Its Own Adventure
Magnificent Giant Tree: Sequoia in a Snowstorm
The Biggest Organism on Earth
Read: Bonsai page (DK, 125)
Watch: Bonsai: The Endless Ritual
Activity: What in Our House Comes From a Tree?
Find or gather things in the house that are made from trees.
Read: Around the House and Pencil and Paper (I Ate Sunshine 84-87); Sporting Life (I Ate Sunshine 92)
Watch: How It’s Made: Toilet Paper
Faber-Castell: How We Make Pencils
Activity: What Foods Come From Trees? (Brainstorm)
Watch: Why Are There So Many Types of Apples?
Snack: Apple taste test
Do a blind taste test of several different kinds of apples and vote on a favorite.
How Can Trees Help Us?
Watch: Shinrin Yoku: Forest Bathing — The Latest Health Craze in Japan
Activity: Go out to park or find a nearby tree or group of trees to spend several minutes with. Consider finding a sit spot.
Caring for Trees
Read: Taking Care of the Planet (I Ate Sunshine 114)
Watch: Rainforests 101
How Do Rainforests Make Clouds?
Read: Shrinking forest (DK 172); The Future is Green (I Ate Sunshine 118)
Watch: Climate 101: Deforestation
Watch: Chief Oshkosh: Leader in Troubled Times
Read on, for grown-ups: “Menominee Forest Keepers”
Trees Caring for Each Other
Watch: How Trees Secretly Talk to Each Other
Planting and Activism
Read: Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees [Amazon | Bookshop]
Watch: Wangari Maathai: I Will Be a Hummingbird
Plants and Flowers
Read: Plant Parts (I Ate Sunshine 14), The Birth of a Plant (I Ate Sunshine 28)
Life Cycle of a Plant (DK 28)
Du Iz Tak?, Carson Ellis [Amazon | Bookshop]
Activity: Sprout seeds and plant them
Soak seeds and beans overnight — we chose lentils, black-eyed peas, pinto beans, and an avocado seed, from a grocery store avocado — and then place the seeds on a damp towel in a Ziploc-style bag and tape it to a window with good sunlight. For the avocado seed, poke several toothpicks into it for support and submerge the bottom half in water in a jar. If you can be patient, it will sprout in about six weeks. More detailed instructions here.
When the seeds sprout, you can plant them in a clear plastic food container, near the edge, so that you can watch the roots grow.
Dessert: Together, make dirt cups with chocolate pudding, crushed chocolate sandwich cookies, gummy worms, and a sprig of mint for the “growing plant.”
Plant Communication and Defense
Read: Self-Defense (DK 40)
Watch: Can Plants Talk to Each Other?
The Amazing Way Plants Defend Themselves
Listen: Mother Earth’s Plantasia, Mort Garson (1976)
More information here.
Plants as Food
Read: I Ate Sunshine for Breakfast — and So Did You! (I Ate Sunshine 66-70); Fruit or vegetable? (DK 134-139), A bit nutty (DK 150)
Watch: How Do Peanuts Grow?
Cranberry: How Does It Grow?
Read: Federico and the Wolf, Rebecca J. Gomez and Elisa Chavarri [Amazon | Bookshop]
Activity: Make the pico de gallo recipe from Federico and the Wolf
Read: Helpful Herbs (DK 168); Green Healing (I Ate Sunshine 106)
Activity: Make fresh mint tea by submerging whole mint stalks in hot water
Activity: Mix rosemary with butter and serve on sourdough bread
Read: What Is a Fern? (DK 50)
Activity: Fern leaf cyanotype
Collect a fern stem from your own yard or a nearby garden that allows clipping. (If you can’t find a fern, any leaf will do!) These cyanotypes produce amazing results, but Nature Print paper also works.
Read: It’s a Trap! (I Ate Sunshine 62)
Plants that smell terrible:
Watch: This Giant Plant Looks like Raw Meat and Smells Like Dead Rat
Plants with incredible survival skills:
Watch: These “Resurrection” Plants Spring Back to Life in Seconds
Watch: The Wild World of Carnivorous Plants
Hungry Venus Fly Traps Snap Shut on a Host of Unfortunate Flies
Plants that explode:
Watch: Seed Dispersal by Explosion/
Watch: Biggest Flower in the World: Rafflesia arnoldii
Listen: Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, Stevie Wonder (1979)
Read: Flowers (DK 64); Parts of a Flower (I Ate Sunshine 22)
Watch: Botanical Animation: Story of Flowers (Hana no Hanashi) (showing the life cycle of flowers)
Spring (time lapse by Jamie Scott)
Dandelion Time Lapse
Activity: Collect and press flowers
As above, press flowers using a microwave flower press or by sandwiching leaves between absorbent paper (paper bags or newsprint paper) inside books, then stacking more books on top. (Microwave pressing is nearly instant, but you’ll wait a couple of weeks for traditional pressing.) Pressed flowers can be glued into the Nature Journal with regular white glue or rubber cement.
What Do People Use Flowers for?
Watch: Botanical Animation: Story of Flowers Pt. 2
Cambodian Flower Dance (dance of flowers floating in lake)
You can also learn hand motions to go along with the dance.
Look: Victorian Floriography sheets
Edgarton’s The Flower Vase (1844) — “convert to PDF” pages 155-159 — or use this one-page guide.
Activity: Floriography messages
If you have a child who likes code, write a flower message for them to decode and have them write you one in return.
Read on: Thinking of You: Turn This Book Into a Bouquet, Molly Hatch [Amazon | Bookshop]
Happy Day: Turn This Book Into a Bouquet, Molly Hatch [Amazon | Bookshop]
Both of these books discuss the symbolism of flowers and have movable floral elements that you can rotate up to form a custom bouquet (with a secret, symbolic message) above the book.
Activity: Paper flower crowns to color, cut, and wear
Activity: Free flower cards to color and send to friends
Fungi and Mushrooms (Decomposers)
Read: Up in the Garden, Down in the Dirt, Kate Messner and Christopher Silas Neale [Amazon | Bookshop]
Watch: Fabulous Food Chains: Crash Course Kids
The Dirt on Decomposers: Crash Course Kids
How Does Oakland Turn Food Scraps into Soil?
Fungi: Undervalued Jewels of the Urban Jungle
Fly Agaric Growing and Dying Time Lapse
Activity: Grow Your Own Mushroom kit
We used the Back to the Roots mushroom grow kit, which was well worth the price and astonishing to watch. [Amazon | Back to the Roots]
Activity: Fold-Out Mushroom house book
This book is suitable for about 5+, although a younger child could color the book if a parent assembled it first.
Bees and Flies
Read: Pollination (I Ate Sunshine 24); Pollinators (DK 68), Looks Familiar (DK 70)
Watch: Honey Bees Make Pollen… and Bread?
Watch This Bee Build Her Bee-Jeweled Nest
This Vibrating Bumblebee Unlocks a Flower’s Hidden Treasure
Flies: The Often Overlooked Pollinators
We Owe So Much to the Little Bees, Betty and the Turnips (song)
Activity: Roll beeswax candles
Kits are widely available, but we purchased this one.
Snack: Chamomile tea with honey
Activity: The Yoga Game in the Garden, Kathy Beliveau and Denise Holmes [Amazon | Bookshop]
A poetry riddle book that guides children through garden-themed yoga poses.
Activity: Visit your compost pile, if you have one
Activity: Identify plants in your garden using the iNaturalist app and create a map of plants and trees in your garden
Activity: Assemble fruit and vegetable snacks together: knock the seeds out of a pomegranate, open up a green bean, make vanilla bean whipped cream with a vanilla bean, cut open a watermelon, etc.
Activity: Backyard observation
Watch the yard for 10-15 minutes and write in the Nature Journal everything you saw. If possible, create a list of all the different species that call your garden home.
Read On, Grown-Ups
- Underland: A Deep Time Journey, Robert Macfarlane [Amazon | Bookshop] — On a most basic level, master nature writer Macfarlane’s book is about underground spaces (caves, catacombs, scientific laboratories, underground networks between trees and fungi, and more). But it’s also suspenseful and philosophical, a page-turner, beautiful.
- Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, Robin Wall Kimmerer [Amazon | Bookshop] — Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and plant ecologist, combines not only breathtaking nature writing and memoir, but also profound ethical insights and a biting, persuasive critique of capitalism. The depth of compassion here is breathtaking. Many of the ideas in this book might have the power to shift your whole perspective.
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