One of the most frequently raised concerns I get from teachers when we discuss growing vegetables in school is "I'm worried about fitting in watering the plants enough, between maths and literacy and all the other things we have to do." In a family garden too, watering is an important, frequent job which can feel a bit of a boring chore. So "fitting it in" seems like a burden, something which takes time away from more important things.
But young children don't look at watering things in the same way. When you're little, most interactions with water are fun. Baths, swimming, sprinklers on a hot day, paddling pools, water balloons. Children are not often allowed to have free reign with water, between safety and not wanting wet clothes and mess, they often only get very controlled access to water. So for them, water is a thing to have fun with. Water tables are one of the most popular activities in a school or nursery. So we need to throw away our adult categorisation of watering as a chore and see it through a child's eyes.
So, like a water table activity, if we can think of watering as water play rather than a dull job, then there is lots of scope to use it to help children learn. Children learn best through play and being active. So use the watering to explore parts of the curriculum in a practical way.
Using watering to explore maths skills and maths language
Instead of just filling watering cans from the tap, consider using a selection of different containers, and filling them from a large central bowl or bucket, so that children can dip in to fill the container. You could use jugs, yoghurt pots, milk bottles, large spoons, ice cream tubs etc. Doing this they can explore how to scoop water effectively by dipping and straightening containers, they can feel the different weights of the containers when full and empty, they can link together the idea of the size of an object to its capacity and the volume it holds, because they can feel and see the different volumes. They can see how much longer it takes to fill and empty a large container than a small one.
Talk to them about: size words (big small); shape words (round, square); weight words (heavy, light); capacity words (volume, full, empty)
For older or more able students you can also bring in actual measuring of volume. You can use some measuring jugs and ask children to fill various containers, and then guess whether one contains more volume than the other based on size or weight. Then can then carefully pour the contents in a measuring jug and use their number skills to read the reading on the jug and see whether their guesses were correct.
You can work this the other way too, by asking children to measure a specific amount in a jug and then guess a container that it will fit into, and try this out.
Talk to them about: numbers (one, two three); units (millilitres, litres); comparison words (more than, less than, the same)
As well as the estimating in the two activities above, children can also estimate how much water a plant needs according to its size and the size of the container they are using. Ask them to look at the plants and decide which ones need a lot of water and which ones only need a little bit of water. Then when they have matched, they can use the pots to water the plants.
Talk to them about: comparisons (bigger, smaller); sufficiency (too much, not enough, just right)
Using watering to explore literacy and creativity
Experiencing water language
While playing with the water, children can learn new words and use ones they have already acquired. As well as the more mathematical words above, they can describe other things about water and soil. Encourage them to really feel with their senses and to hone in and describe it. Help them to talk about how things feel, how things sound, and how things look. Not only weights and sizes, but also squidginess, tinkling, splish splashing, wetness, coolness, etc.
Help them to come up with their own word combinations, help them to make small rhymes and even put together a poem together to describe what they are experiencing.
For this game you don't even need to water plants. You can water soil to make mud. Children get to use their motor skills to handle containers and pour from watering cans, and if they make messy mud, that provides more language to explore.
Talk to them about: texture words (wet, slippy); sound words (splash, pinkle); temperature words (cool, warm)
Role playing as a plant
Ask the children to imagine being a plant, that needs some water. Ask them to talk about themselves as though they are a thirsty plant, longing for water, and then to talk about seeing the water coming and getting the water. Encourage them to be as descriptive as they can. Make a note of great words they use. Later you can help them to remember and together you can write a poem. Older children can learn to spell key words or write their own poem. Everyone can draw themselves as a plant.
Using watering to explore science
Observing plant needs
Children should learn about the needs of a plant, but a great way for them to understand it is to see a plant in need and a plant with everything it needs. They can see a slightly droopy plant on a hot day, and describe how it looks, perhaps taking a picture. Then returning to the plant a few hours after watering or the next day as appropriate, they can see how much better the plant looks, how strong the stems and leaves are.
Plant needs science
Water is the most urgent need of a plant, but provides a good excuse to remind them of the other things that a plant needs. Ask them if they can remember what else a plant needs to grow well. See if any of the plants are looking weak and it is not because of water, what else could it be?
For a good summary lesson on plant needs click here.
Talk to them about: water, light, soil/nutrients, temperature (depending on age and stage)
Using routine watering to teach observation skills, critical thinking and responsibility
Obviously plants need watering regularly and not every watering can be a fun multi curricular exercise. But children can still learn from routine watering.
Using a tracking sheet, assign children to watering duties on different days.
On those days, assigned children should decide whether plants need watering based on the weather and by observing the plants.
Children should feel the soil to see if is it damp or dusty.
They should look at the weather and see if the plant is likely to dry out.
They should then water according to their observations.
Children can report back to the adult whether they decided to water or not, which plants, and why they decided that way.
They can practice finding their name on the rota and ticking off their role.
This also teaches children to keep responsibilities by checking their name on a rota (with support) and making sure they play their part.
Here are two printable rotas you can download to use with younger and older children.
Early Years Watering Rota
Older Children Watering Rota
This video from the Australian Department for Education shows some of the ways you can use watering to get children to talk about maths terms about volume and capacity. They use a variety of everyday containers for water which can make a change from only using watering cans and opens up more discussions about volume and size.