Science ideas for young children: Flowers and plant reproduction

Watching flowers bloom in the spring can be an opportunity to teach children about science and the natural world.

The center of this daffodil flower is the female, or pistil. Around the pistil are six male parts, or stamens. The powder on the stamens is pollen. Photo credit: Danny Nicholson,
The center of this daffodil flower is the female, or pistil. Around the pistil are six male parts, or stamens. The powder on the stamens is pollen. Photo credit: Danny Nicholson,

How do plants make babies? It can be an interesting question to explore with children. As the springtime turns into summer, it is a great opportunity to learn about flowers and plant reproduction.

Even children understand that most life forms we are familiar with need two biological parents to be created, a mother and a father. How does this work with plants? Who is the mom and who is the dad? Ask children questions to see what they think before going into further learning.

  • Where do plants come from? Most kids understand that plants come from seeds, but where do seeds come from?
  • Hold up a daffodil bloom and ask kids, “Is this flower a boy or a girl?”

Flowers can be male, female or both. In the picture of the daffodil, the center of the flower is the female portion, or pistil. Around the pistil are six male parts, called stamens. Ask the children to examine the flower closely. They should notice powder on the stamens. This is pollen. Go around to several different flowers and see if you can find pistils or stamens. Some plants have multiple pistils, others just have one. Be aware that some plants have separate male flowers with only stamens and female flowers with only pistils on the same plant. The male and female flowers can look very different. Other plants have separate male and female plants.

  • As you are exploring different plants and flowers, be sure to think about a wide variety of plants, not just typical showy flowers. What do the flowers on the grass in your lawn look like? What about flowers on trees? What about coniferous, or needle-bearing, trees? What about corn in your garden? What about cattails in a wetland?
  • Since most plants can’t move around very well, how do a mom and a dad plant meet up?

In order to make a seed, pollen from one flower needs to make it to another flower. How might that pollen move? For most plants, it requires bees or other pollinating insects. Pollinators will visit one flower then visit another flower, and some of the pollen from the first flower shakes off onto the pistil of the second flower. In some plants, this is also done by wind.

Humans can pollinate flowers too. You can pollinate plants with a small craft paintbrush. If you want to experiment with different kinds of flowers, hand-pollinate flowers then close up the blossom so bees don’t bring other pollen to the party, and then collect the seed and see what the next flower looks like. Note: This will take over a year, and the seed might not be viable, so be aware this is a long-term project.

  • Where does the fruit and seed of a plant develop? Usually if you follow the pistil down there will be an enlarged area that develops into the fruit, and the seed is inside.

Examples of plants and their flowers:

  • Corn – The male part of the plant is the tassel at the top, and the female part is the silk on the corn cob. Wind usually pollinates corn.
  • Squash – Squash has separate male and female flowers on the same plant.
  • Strawberries – Strawberries have many pistils that each produce a seed you see on the outside of a strawberry.
  • Oak trees – Oak trees have separate male and female flowers on different parts of their branches.
  • Pine trees – The large cones most people are familiar with are the female portion of the flower, and there are tiny male cones that produce pollen.

Michigan State University Extension recommends conducting this experiment within a family, in a day-care setting, as part of a school activity, a 4-H club or with any group working with young children. Have fun exploring in the garden, asking questions and learning about plant reproduction. 

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