Montessori Inspired Toddler Discovery: In the Garden

My grandfather had a large vegetable garden in his backyard, and throughout my childhood, I have the fondest memories of helping him in his garden: gathering spinach for the dinner salad, pulling carrots to leave for the Easter bunny, and picking flowers to arrange for the kitchen table.  Although I often come to terms with the fact I may not have inherited a green thumb from my grandfather and my father (in terms of dead potted plants), I have always wanted a garden in my backyard, and Eli has been a huge motivator to make that happen.  A garden is just such a beautiful place and way to learn about our world.  And luckily, my husband seems to have a bit more green to his thumb, so it is definitely a family project.

Square foot backyard garden.  We wanted to start with a manageable garden, and for new gardeners, we wanted something that was straightforward, organized, and easy to implement.  Welcome, the square foot garden.  We gathered the necessary materials to build two square foot gardens: 8 1x6s 4 ft. long, 12 4 ft. latices, 24 decking screws, 24 nails, weed cloth, hammer, electric drill/screwdriver, and a pencil. Lining up the 1x6s edge to edge, we drilled three holes on one side of the 1×6.  Then we drilled the decking screws in to form a square box.  Then we placed the boxes in their permanent location, and we cut the weed cloth to size to create the garden floor.  We then filled the boxes with a compost soil mix, watering the soil occasionally to help compress the soil in the garden.  Finally, we measured and marked (with pencil) 12 inch spaces on each side of box, and then nailed the latices, creating 16 square foot garden spaces.  If you’d like to know the reasoning behind the square foot garden and more details in regards to seed spacing and garden building, I highly recommend All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew.

Of course, Eli helped with every step. He especially loved when it came time to plant and water the seeds.  Oh, how I love those little working hands and those little dirty feet!  Our favorite child-sized garden tools are: hand shovel, spade, rake set; shovel, spade, rake set; watering can; and wheelbarrow.

While we wait for our garden to grow (a lot of crossing fingers happening over here), I thought Eli would enjoy exploring more about what is found in the garden, so I put some work together for him on his main living space work shelf.  At just over two years old, here’s what I included:

Tree (plant) stacker. An old favorite that has been out of rotation for a bit, I added this “plant” stacker as a way for Eli to watch (and help) a plant grow taller and taller.

Plant life cycle sequencing/matching. It was hard to imagine a shelf about gardens without including the life cycle of a plant.  I introduced Eli to the parts of the plant life cycle using a two part lesson.  Then, demonstrated how to place the life cycle in sequential order, but since sequencing is a new skill for Eli, I made and added a matching element, which also serves as a self-correction element.

Insects found in a garden: language.  It’s seems like forever ago that Eli was discovering bugs.  Because it’s been awhile, I thought he’d love to explore and (re)learn the names of bugs we may see in our garden. I introduced the bugs using a two part lesson, and Eli enjoys talking about what he notices about each bug (i.e. color, body parts, etc.).  We also discuss aspects of each bug.  For example, I explained how spiders make webs to catch other bugs to eat.  We then went on a spider web hunt, searching for spider webs in our back and front yards.

Flowers: language and matching. We planted flower seeds in our garden, too, so I thought it would be fun to learn the names of different flowers using this TOOB set.  I created matching cards as well because Eli still enjoys matching work.

Small world play: vegetable garden. Eli is such a huge fan of small world/imaginative play right now, so I knew this vegetable garden would be a hit, and boy, was I right!  And as he plays, he uses his pincer grip to pull and “plant” the vegetables in their peg-holed spots as well as sorts the vegetables into their garden rows.  We’ll add this garden to his dollhouse eventually.

Garden tools: language. Eli has loved garden tools for quite some time, so I made these cards for Eli awhile back, but they have also been out of rotation, so I thought it was a perfect time to bring them back.  The set includes: lawnmower, riding lawnmower, weedwacker, leaf blower, rake, spade, hoe, watering can, hose, wheelbarrow, garden gloves, and flower pot.  I love language cards because it gives Eli an opportunity to make his own connections.  While working with his small world garden, I saw him hop up, return to his shelf, carry these language cards over to his work mat, and search for the wheelbarrow and watering can cards to match them to his small world figurines.  Completely self-directed connection making.

Vegetables: language.  These beautiful vegetable cards from The Montessori Company helped round out our “In the Garden” materials. Eli’s learning the names of vegetables we don’t eat regularly, and we plan on having a vegetable “hunt” using the cards the next time we’re at the grocery store.  He loves going on “hunts” lately.

Books. Eli enjoys longer books now, so it’s extra fun to read with him.  I love these garden and seed books because they work well now and will be able to grow with him because they provide such lovely details.

Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt by Kate Messner.

A Seed is Sleepy by Diana Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long.

How a Seed Grows by Helene J. Jordan.

And that’s our toddler discovery!  Although, I know this “in the garden” discovery will continue for months (and years) to come.


    • Lindsay

      Thank you! 😊 And of course! I should have included it in the post. I pulled a couple pages from Botanicum ( We are using other pages for art in our entryway, so it worked out nicely to use a couple pages for this space.

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