cover image for harvesting sweetcorn with children article
Harvesting sweetcorn with children is always really exciting! If you have never peeled back the covers of a corn cob to find the sweet corn kernels underneath, it really feels like magic! 
Here is how to explain to a child how to harvest corn, so they can learn:
  • how to tell if a corn is ready, so they know when to harvest each cob
  • how to peel back the sheath properly (called shucking)
  • how to deal with the corn straight after to seal in the flavour
block of sweetcorn plant with ripe looking corn cobs

Teach Children How To Tell If Sweetcorn Is Ripe

1. Shape

2. Feel

3. Tassels (silks)

4. Kernels

5. Pop test


1. Shape - first get children to look at the shape of the cobs. Do they look fat and full? A cob which is still thin is not likely to be ready. Get them to use their imagination to try to Xray vision inside and guess whether it is full of juicy kernels.

2. Feel - ask children to feel the fat cobs and gently squeeze, does it feel like the outer leaves are being filled with juiciness?

3. Tassels - the tassels on the top (also called silks because they are like strands of silk) are where the cobs have been fertilised. When the corn is ready, these have served their purpose and they start to go brown and shrivel up. If they are still plump and green, then they have not finished their job. Ask children to decide whether the tassels look brown and shrivelled. They can feel them and rub them between their fingers, to see if they feel dry or new and plump.

4. If the tassels are brown and the cob is plump. they can pull back part of the sheath to have a peek. Show them how. When you pull back far enough to see some kernels, they should be fattened out, and yellow (or whatever colour your variety is supposed to be). Don't worry if the first few rows aren't filled, sometimes that happens, go a few rows down before deciding it's not ready.

5. If the kernels look plump, see if they are ripe. Use a fingernail to pierce one kernel. If the juice that comes out is totally clear, it means there isn't much sugar in yet and a couple more days might be needed. If it is cloudy or milky, it has sugar in it. It is ready to eat! If it is thick and hard to pierce but milky coloured it might be already starting to dry out. Definitely pick it but you might use it for soup or stews as it might be a bit starchy. Show the children how to check a kernel and then let them take a turn checking. If they don't have good fingernails, you can bring a small pointy object like the point of some (clean) safe art scissors, or a toothpick, to press and pierce the kernels.

grid of four images of checking if a corn cob is ripe

Teach Children How to Harvest and Shuck (Peel) Corn

Harvesting

When you have selected your corn, show the children how to remove it, Bend it back away from the plant and downwards, holding the plant still so it doesn't snap parts of the stem, especially if there is more than one cob on it. You may need to hold the plant while children bend the cobs down as they can sometimes be a little overzealous! 

Show them how to bend it down and then twist to get the last bit off so they don't have to keep pulling.


Shucking

Show children how to peel back all of the leaves. It is really fun to do this. When all the leaves are peeled down, you can snap off the stem with the leaves attached. Some children will pull the leaves right off because they are enthusiatic pullers - watch out for flying elbows! Children may need help to snap the stalks off. They can then pull all the little silks off too.

grid of four images showing stages of shucking corn

Teach Children How to Seal In Flavour and Cook Corn

Explain to children that the juice in the corn is full of sugar. But when it is taken off the plant this sugar starts to become less sweet. It is important to cook the corn quickly to stop the sugar changing. 

You can do this by putting them into boiling water for a few minutes or popping them into the microwave for a few minutes.

If you are going to barbecue them later it is still worth doing this step to stop the sugars from changing.

Some experienced allotment growers take a pan and camping stove to the allotment with them to blanch the corn before taking it home, so that it is at its sweetest! You don't have to do this, but it is definitely worth cooking it on the same day. You will really notice the difference in sweetness.

Here is a great video from Go Tropical UK on Youtube which shows you all the basics we have covered here about harvesting sweetcorn with children. You might find it useful to show this to children first, or watch it for yourself to build your own confidence.

And here is a different and easy way to both shuck and cook a cob at once, and make it easier to get rid of the silks. It will need an adult to do the cutting as it is quite tough for a child to cut the end off, but they can help with the peeling at the end and eat it straight away. A less hands-on but different way to do it all in one!