Growing Sunflowers with Children
Growing sunflowers with children is a lovely way to get children of all ages into gardening. They are fairly easy, low maintenance plants for your garden and great for beginners. There are many different varieties. They grow to different heights and with different sizes and colours of flower heads, so you can find one that best suits your space.
Sunflowers grow very quickly, so children find them particularly exciting! My children find them fascinating to grow, and they can be great for children to measure or track their growth. Even when my son was two, he liked comparing himself to our sunflowers (in terms of height), particularly when they grew way over his head!
It is wonderful for children to be able to see that large plants can grow from tiny seeds! You may want to allow children to look at a range of seeds and then the plants that they grow into. It will be obvious that the way the seed looks and the size of the seeds doesn’t correlate with the size of the full grown plant! We have experimented with growing sunflowers in a flower bed, in large pots and insmall pots. It was interesting to see how the results in the growth of the sunflowers varied. This can be a fun, simple experiment for children to try.
Growing Sunflowers with Children- Planting Sunflower Seeds
Sunflowers can be sown and sprouted indoors or sown outdoors directly (though this will need to be done slightly later). We like to sow directly outdoors in flower beds and pots. Not all of the seeds will grow, so we often plant a few more and/or slightly closer together than recommended. This means if lots of them grow, some of the extra ones can be pulled out (thinned). I would say sow them about 6 inches apart and then thin them out to about 18 inches to 2 feet apart depending on the variety. This is a great way to get children to practice measuring in a hands-on and purposeful way. Older children can practice using a measuring tape, while children just learning about measurement can use a non-standard unit (e.g. a stick that is about 6 inches long) to help them sow the seeds at certain intervals.
I would recommend watering the soil before having children plant the seeds. Children can use their finger to make a small hole, place a seed in the hole, and then cover the hole with soil.
It is then important for them to water every few days when the soil dries out. You will need to decide to water more or less, depending on the climate and rainfall. Watering plants is a great motor skills activity for children, and also very fun for them! Carrying watering cans helps them to build strength and stability and also helps to ‘ground them’ (develops proprioception).
Collecting Seeds from Sunflowers
To collect sunflower seeds, wait until the petals start to dry and fall off and the stem turns yellow or brown. The seeds should be starting to become loose. Then you can cut the head off the stem, brush off the loose bits and rub the seeds, allowing them to fall out. It’s easiest if you do this over a big bowl, which provides a great opportunity for young children to sort!! They will need to sort the black seeds from the white ones (not ready) and the other bits that have fallen off the plant. Lastly, you will want to dry the seeds before you store them for planting in the coming year.
An alternative method of collecting seeds is to cut off the head when around 2/3 of the seeds are mature (e.g. developed but not dried out). Cut the stem about 4 inches down and then wrap a paper bag around it. Hang the heads in a warm, well ventilated room for several weeks to dry out.
After harvesting seeds, they can be eaten raw, roasted, or baked in bread. Any of these is a great way for children to enjoy their hard work!
If you are going to store some seeds to grow next year, then they need to be completely dried before storing. Store them in a jar or other closed container in a cool dark place (refrigerator or cool pantry).
Make sure to dig up any old sunflower plants and dispose of them (compost if possible). If you just leave them to rot over the winter, it can cause disease and problems for the next growing season. In addition to helping the environment, compost is a great way for children to see how plants decay, breaking down over time.
What they get from it
There are many benefits to gardening for both adults and children. Children who grow their food and participate in gardening are more likely to eat vegetables (Bell & Dyment, 2008; Libman, 2007; Morris, Neustadter, & Ziden-berg-Cherr, 2001; Pothukuchi, 2004). Gardening seems to help children develop a better knowledge of nutrition (Koch, Waliczek, & Zajicek, 2006; Pothukuchi, 2004). Additionally, children involved in gardening tend to eat healthier food throughout their lives along with better fruit and vegetable consumption in adulthood (Morris & Zidenberg-Cherr, 2002; Heimendinger & Van Duyn, 1995).
Gardening allows children to develop initiative and self-confidence, as well as science, maths and literacy skills. In the garden, they tend to be able to use practice these skills in hands-on and purposeful ways which are a great benefit to long-term learning. This all helps them to be more successful in school and the wider world (Miller, 2007).
Take it further
Since sunflowers are fast-growing it could be fun for older children to measure and track the growth of sunflowers. This is a great way for them to practice measuring with standard units (or non-standard units for younger children), and increments of time (e.g. such as measuring every 2 days or 1 week). Older children may even be able to compare the rate of growth.
You may also want to see my post on Teaching Kids about Gardening- Collecting Seeds for further ideas about how to collect seeds from sunflowers and other great flowers for growing with children. Additionally, you may want to see my posts Growing Tomatoes with Children and Outdoor Autumn & Winter Garden Activities for Children.
Bell, A. C. & Dyment, J. E. (2008). Grounds for health: The intersection of green school grounds and health-promoting schools. Environmental Education Research, 14(1): 77-90.
Heimendinger, J. & Van Duyn, M. A. (1995). Dietary behavior change: the challenge of recasting the role of fruit and vegetables in the American diet. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 61(6): 1397-1401.
Koch, S., Waliczek, T. M., & Zajicek, J. M. (2006). The effect of a summer garden program on the nutritional knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors of children. Hort-Technology 16(4): 620-625
Libman, K. (2007). Growing youth growing food: How vegetable gardening influences young people’s food consciousness and eating habits. Applied Environmental Education & Communication 6(1): 87-95.
Miller, D. (2007) The Seeds of Learning: Young Children Develop Important Skills Through Their Gardening Activities at a Midwestern Early Education Program, Applied Environmental Education & Communication, 6:1, 49-66.
Morris, J. L., Neustadter, A., & Zidenberg-Cherr, S. (2001). First-grade gardeners more likely to taste vegetables. California Agriculture, 55(1), 43-46.
Morris, J., & Zidenberg-Cherr, S. (2002). Garden-enhanced nutrition curriculum improves fourth-grade school children’s knowledge of nutrition and preference for vegetables. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 102(1), 91-93.
Pothukuchi, K. (2004). Hortaliza: A youth ‘nutrition garden’ in southwest Detroit. Children, Youth and Environments 14(2): 124-155.