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Safe gardens for children

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Grow safely this Spring

There’s no doubt that many Australian services have a long tradition of gardening and natural surroundings for young children.

Equally, there’s no doubt that through the 1990s and Noughties there was an explosion of ‘plastic fantastic’ outdoor areas for early childhood education, driven in part by a community-wide fear of insurance litigation and a boom in colourful, extruded playground equipment and recycled tyre soft-fall construction.

Quality gardens

The inclusion of Physical Environment and sustainability concepts as assessable measures under the National Quality Framework in 2012 was partly responsible for an upsurge of interest in connecting children and educators to the environment in general, and gardening in particular.

Worm farms, vegetable patches, raised garden beds, vertical planting walls and composting buckets were all tangible ways to deliver nature in an ECE service, and many directors dreamed of the day they could ditch the fantastic plastic and put in a recirculating rock bed stream instead!

Worm farms became a tangible form of commitment to quality physical environments

Sustainability education also become more mainstream as the evidence for and effects of climate change became more and more apparent in the past decade.  Greening our homes and workplaces, growing our own food, teaching children about caring for nature – all these values have become more and more embedded in educators’ personal and professional practices.

Springing forth

So we’re confident that right now, as jasmine blossoms form around the country, a goodly number of our readers are thinking of seeds and seedlings, soil and sowing.

We’re here, as ever, to help with resources and inspiration to get you into the garden, wall planter, or window box with confidence this year.

For a start, we’ve gathered some of ACECQA’s blog posts from the past few years on the topic of gardening and sustainability:

ACECQA We Hear You blog: Physical environment

ACECQA We Hear You blog: Demystifying sustainability

ACECQA We Hear You blog: A green thumbs up to sustainable programs

ACECQA We Hear You blog: Supporting indoor and outdoor play

ACECQA We Hear You blog: Taking an active role in the environment and promoting a sustainable future

Vertical gardens are one way you can bring plants into any service, even in a highly urban area.

What’s safe to plant?

Whether you’re a newbie with a brown thumb, or a happy horticulturist, or somewhere in between, inspiration is always welcome. There are always new plants being released, and always new ideas from professional development courses, from television gardening shows, in magazines and, of course, via internet searches and sites like Pinterest.

You may know CELA’s Little Green Spade series, it’s a great place to start!

Like a family gardener, an early childhood educator has a very important additional consideration in their plant choices: safety.

Some leaves, stems, flowers and berries can cause skin irritation if touched, and if eaten may cause illness or even end in tragedy. You need to be cautious about any new plants you introduce, and you also need to know about any dangers from plants currently on, or intruding upon, your property.

This resource from the Raising Children Network is particularly useful:

Dangerous plants – Raising Children Network

The article makes the point that even common suburban plants may be a no-no around children.  For instance, if eaten by children Duranta erecta – better known in nurseries as ‘Geisha Girl’, ‘Sky Flower’, or ‘Golden Dewdrop’ – can cause nausea or vomiting, drowsiness, convulsions, fast heart rate, fever and has been known to lead to death.

Duranta erecta – Geisha Girl – plants aren’t safe for children

Here are some additional resources to help you choose plants for Australian conditions that are safe for children, and avoid those that aren’t.

Kidsafe NSW Grow Me Safely

Little Green Steps case study

Poisonous plants and fungi (QLD Health)

Making a plan

Whether your garden is established, new, or still in your imagination, Spring is the season of beginnings – refresh the plants, replenish the soil, put some new structures or fittings into place.

Like taking a holiday, part of the fun of gardening is making plans.  And like any good planning in ECE, it’s an opportunity to bring children, your colleagues, and their families into the process.

Here are some questions you could put to your service’s community in an online survey or in discussions:

  • What does/will our garden mean to us?
  • What is your favourite flower/vegetable/fruit?
  • How much space should we give to growing things? About what percentage can be for gardens and how much for our play areas?
  • What knowledge or skills do you have that may help in our garden? (This is a question for children too!)
  • How can we connect our service garden to our gardens or indoor plants at home?

Nasturtiums are an example of an attractive edible plant – you can eat both leaves and flowers

Home connections

The question about connecting a service’s garden to your community’s homes can take you to wonderful places.

Perhaps someone has an easily grown and fun plant like a pineapple geranium or apple mint, and will share some cuttings with you. Or maybe they’ve got an overflowing bed of nasturtiums (see picture above) that can be split and added to your gardens.

Perhaps someone has a pot they no longer need that the children can decorate? Maybe there’s a fire pit or a water feature in one of your family’s homes which they’d like to donate?

Or maybe this question could lead to construction of a scarecrow from old clothes and broom sticks?

Children thrive when their home and their service forges a bond and shares connections – and gardening is a rich and powerful way to do just that.

A geranium cutting could connect a child’s home with your service for a lifetime.

Looking for more gardening resources specifically for early childhood education?  Type ‘Little Green Spade’ into the search bar at the top of this page and check out the beautiful planners, diaries and other resources in our shop and on the blog.



Bec Lloyd is the founder and managing director of Bec & Call Communication, providing professional writing, editing and strategy services to the school and early childhood education sector since 2014. In 2018 she launched UnYucky mindset and menus for happier family mealtimes. Formerly the communications lead at ACECQA and BOS (now NESA), Bec is a journo and mother of three who produces Amplify for us at Community Early Learning Australia.

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