Young girl holding a bundle of swiss chard. Photo by Johnny McClung on Unsplash.

Cultivating Social-Emotional Health with Farm to Early Care and Education

April 16, 2020 - <>, Lindsay Mensch

Right now, families and children are confronting stress and uncertainty in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Children may be spending less time with peers and more time with parents and primary caregivers while Michigan's K-12 schools and early care and education sites are closed.

Parents, caretakers, and early care and education providers may be looking for ways to encourage play-based learning that can teach children critical skills pertaining to this crisis - especially those related to social-emotional health.

We hope that the activities described here will be helpful to caregivers who wish to continue cultivating young children’s emotional wellness during this time.

Providers and families can adapt these ideas to help children develop social and emotional skills once the pandemic has subsided, as well.

Developing strong social-emotional skills early in life is important for lifelong emotional health.

Social-emotional development is the process of how children learn to "form friendships, communicate emotions, and deal with challenges," according to Zero to Three.1

Children gain social-emotional skills through experiential learning, often by modeling adult and peer behavior.2 Parents, caretakers, and early care and education providers often wonder how they can encourage positive social-emotional development. Creating strategic opportunities to engage in experiential learning is one approach that child care providers are using to help children along in their development.3

"A primary goal of early childhood education is to support all areas of child development including: social-emotional, physical, cognitive, and language development."Head Start

Farm to early care and education (farm to ECE) is a group of strategies and activities that increase access to healthy local foods, gardening opportunities, and education about food, nutrition, and agriculture. Farm to ECE includes many experiential learning activities like taste tests and farm field trips. These activities help children understand how food grows and where it comes from.

Farm to ECE can improve the overall quality of educational experiences in ECE settings, which in turn increases positive outcomes in cognitive, social, and emotional development.4 Farm to ECE includes children from birth to age five and can be adapted to any type of early care and education setting.

Play is learning

Many farm to ECE activities encourage children to engage in play. Research shows that while young children play, they develop an emerging awareness of their own characteristics. They explore "likes and dislikes, abilities, differences from other people, and the ways that others value them."5

This process requires a range of experiences and opportunities for children to pursue their own ideas and interests to find out where they lead.6

Play encourages children to develop relationships with familiar adults, interact with peers, participate in groups, and learn cooperation.7 These early social skills continue to be important throughout a child’s lifetime, equipping them with the tools they need to successfully navigate social interactions.8

Child holds a handful of tomatoesThrough play, children also develop skills in responsibility, both for themselves and others. Farm to ECE helps children develop these valuable skills through nutrition education activities. Cooking together, asking children to help read and prepare recipes, using and sharing cooking utensils, and cleaning up after oneself are important lessons in responsibility. Learning these lessons while cooking and trying tasty new foods is fun and memorable for children and teachers alike.

Indoor settings tend to be more structured and are often constrained by guidelines set by adults. Playing outdoors encourages children to learn and explore independently and with their peers.9 Outdoors, children may have more opportunities and space to engage in the type of experimentation that is vital for healthy social-emotional development.

Tending an outdoor garden

Young children can take initiative in their play when they are outdoors. A garden is one component of farm to ECE that can help facilitate this kind of learning.

Janet E. Thompson and Ross A. Thompson write, "A teacher does not need to encourage a child to pick up a shovel and dig into wet sand, crunch through piles of fallen leaves, or take note of two squirrels chattering as they race up a tree trunk."10 These are things children do naturally. "Watering flowers and taking care not to trample small plants are behaviors children readily imitate and then begin to initiate on their own."

Young child examines a sunflower plant in a gardenA garden can help children feel like part of a community as they share a sense of responsibility and learn to work together. In gardens, children learn how to share tools and space, to haul buckets of water together to nurture plants that will grow food they can later enjoy, and to weed and harvest with their friends.

The natural environment of a garden encourages children to use all of their senses while also fostering a sense of calm as they learn about how food grows.11 The garden is so much more than simply planting, weeding, and harvesting.

More social-emotional benefits of farm to ECE

The independence and leadership demonstrated in a garden can extend indoors as children take part in cooking activities and tasting demonstrations. Adults can offer children the opportunity to take ownership in specific activities like washing produce to prepare for cooking, measuring ingredients for a group recipe, and setting out items for taste testing, such as plates and cups.

As children gain fundamental social-emotional skills during farm to ECE activities, parents, caregivers, and teachers learn about healthy habits and their local food system.12 Spending time in a garden and eating fresh fruits and vegetables can reduce stress and improve mental health for adults as well as children.13, 14

Additionally, farm to ECE activities can meet a variety of early learning standards for cognitive, social, and emotional development. Teachers and providers looking to meet learning standards can find creative and exciting ways to teach children using farm to ECE.

The range of experiential learning opportunities offered by farm to ECE can support children and adults on their path to emotional wellness.

Learn more about gardening

Always, but especially in stressful times, good nutrition, good sleep, being social, and spending time outdoors will strengthen our and our children’s overall wellbeing.

We recommend these gardening curricula to for you get started with farm to ECE:

Food For Thought - Nutrition Across the Curriculum

Food for Thought is a free curriculum for the Collective School Garden Network that includes five units with 32 lessons educators can use with preschoolers with a focus on fruits and vegetables. A nutrition activity integrates different domains including language arts, math, and science.

From Our Farms

Targeting preschool through third grade, From Our Farms out of Rutgers University includes hands-on activities about fruits, vegetables, and dairy cows, integrating science, math, reading and language arts, and health. Educators will need to contact Rutgers to purchase the curriculum, but you can print samples of the family fun pages for free.

Grow It, Try It, Like It

Grow it, Try it, Like it is a garden-themed nutrition education kit featuring three fruits and three vegetables from USDA Team Nutrition. Using lesson plans that include hands-on and planting activities, there are also nutrition education activities that integrate MyPlate. The books and lesson plans are available as free downloads on the USDA website or can be ordered in hard copy.

Harvest of the Month

Harvest of the Month has an educators’ corner that contains tools and resources such as seasonal activities and links to books about fruits and vegetables. There are other resources including recipes and translated newsletters that educators may find helpful as well.

Michigan Farm to ECE Network

Find additional online resources for gardening compiled by the Michigan Farm to ECE Network.

Additional resources

More resources based on current events and other timely topics can be found at the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) interest forum and online community page called Hello, Child Care Aware, and the National Association for Family Child Care (NAFCC).

COVID-19 Resources

The CDC offers some suggestions for adults and families to cope with stress and help children make sense of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Resources for Early Care and Education Providers:


  1. Zero to Three. Social and Emotional Development. Retrieved from
  2. Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The Ecology of Human Development. Harvard University Press.
  3. Noddings, N. (2005) Caring in education. The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. Retrieved from
  4. National Farm to School Network. (2017). A Roadmap for Farm to Early Care and Education: A guide to understanding farm to school opportunities in early care and education settings. Retrieved from
  5. Thompson, J.E., & Thompson, R.A. (2007). Natural Connections: Children, Nature, and Social-Emotional Development. Exchange Magazine. Retrieved from 
  6. Ibid.
  7. Shonkoff, J. P., & Phillips, D. A. (Eds.). (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development. National Academy Press.
  8. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2004). Young children develop in an environment of relationships. Working Paper No. 1. Retrieved from 
  9. Perry, J. P., & Branum, L. (2009). “Sometimes I pounce on twigs because I’m a meat eater”: Supporting physically active play and outdoor learning. American Journal of Play, 2(2), 195-211.
  10. Thompson, J.E., & Thompson, R.A.
  11. Nedovic, S., & Morrissey, A. (2013). Calm active and focused: Children’s responses to an organic outdoor learning environment. Learning Environments Research, 16.  
  12. National Farm to School Network.
  13. Clatworthy, J., Hinds, J. and M. Camic, P. (2013). Gardening as a mental health intervention: a review. Mental Health Review Journal, 18(4), 214-225. 
  14. Brookie, K. L., Best, G. I., & Conner, T. S. (2018). Intake of Raw Fruits and Vegetables Is Associated With Better Mental Health Than Intake of Processed Fruits and Vegetables. Frontiers in Psychology.  


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