As both a designer of outdoor classrooms and a mother, I find myself transported into the minds and bodies of young children on a daily basis. I imagine experiencing the world with my whole self. What is spring to a person who has only experienced it a handful of times? What is the ground when you are 3 feet tall? What is a flower when it is the size of your entire hand? I long to see the seasons change through their eyes—to create spaces where adults and children can come together, trying on each other’s experience of the world. Gardens are a universal way to connect across generations, and to the natural world. Pollinator gardens are becoming an increasingly popular and ecologically important approach to planting in and around children’s outdoor environments.

A Walk With Anya

My 5-year-old daughter, Anya, is the perfect conduit for me to make the leap from an adult mind and body into a that of a child. In preparation for this article, she noticed me flipping through a stack of library books filled with pictures of insects and flowers. Excited to be a part of my research, we walked around the dormant pollinator garden I designed at her preschool, Dimensions, in Lincoln, Nebraska. The garden where, during the growing season, teachers and students nurture the plants, closely observing the bees, butterflies and insects that visit or make it their home.

I asked Anya, “What is something you learned from the pollinator garden at Dimensions?”

She closed her eyes to consider her response. She knows that I am writing a very important article.

“That there is a time to take care of things, and a time to let them die,” she replied.

How can such a young human contain so much wisdom? The way she translated the cycle of the seasons in the garden into a lesson about the seasons of life demonstrates the power of gardening with children.

Child looking at butterfly

A pollinator garden does not need to be large to be beneficial. Every little bit counts. [©Dimensions Educational Research Foundation]

Why Do We Need Pollinator Gardens?

Well-designed pollinator gardens are more than a few butterfly bushes in the corner. They not only feed nectar- and pollen-hungry insects, they provide a habitat where these beneficial insects can lay their eggs, relying on the host plants to feed hungry larvae. They provide shelter from the elements, a place to spend the winter, or a resting spot for migratory insects passing through town. As humans continue to colonize and develop every corner of the earth, replacing these vital habitats is crucial to the survival of the insects that pollinate the food we eat. No pollination, no seed, no fruit, no food. It is that simple—and that complex.

Getting Started: Where and How

Hop online and you will find abundant resources to help schools design, plant and grow a pollinator garden for play and learning—almost to an overwhelming degree! My aim is to inspire you to start your own pollinator garden, empower you to navigate the vast amount of information available on the subject, involve children in the process and have a little fun, too. Before launching into the task of gardening with children, I recommend the following attitudes:

  • Be excited about what does happen, not disappointed about what does not.
  • Work in a team and write down who is doing what. The responsibility for building and maintaining the space should not fall on just one or two people. There is no room for resentments in a pollinator garden.
  • Are you unsure, learning and figuring it out? So are the children! Bring them along on your garden planning journey. If there is play, learning and positive connections, then you have already succeeded!
  • A garden does not need to be large to be beneficial. Every little bit counts, and who knows? Maybe your garden will inspire other gardens, that inspire others…
  • Do not let “the right way” get in your way. Focus on process, not outcome. Do what you can to get started, and let the rest evolve over time.

Now that you are bringing your breezy attitude to the garden party, I would like to add these considerations for schools and spaces for children, to complement the information available online and in numerous books.

Child looking at flowers

See a great sopt outside your fenced in play yard? Work with your administrative team to find out if you can take children there for “field trips.” [©Dimensions Educational Research Foundation]

Pollinator Garden Location: Sun and Water

Most—but not all—pollinator garden plants require full sun. That means at least six hours of direct sun each day. Direct sun is sunlight that shines directly on the area and is not filtered through leafy trees or dappled shade. Consider the following while you decide which area is right for your garden.

  • Not sure if you have enough sunlight? Try a shadow study with children. Print out an aerial (satellite) photograph from the internet. Mark all the trees, buildings and structures that cast shadows. Observe the pattern of shadows at different times of day between the months of May and September. Involve children and learn about the relationship between the sun, the earth and the shadows in your outdoor space.
  • Cannot find a site with full sun? There are pollinator plants for partly-shady sites (four to six hours of sun) and shade (less than four hours of sun), but choices are more limited and flowers are typically less prolific.
  • See a great spot outside your fenced play yard? Work with your administrative team to find out if you can take children there for “field trips.” Our outdoor classroom at Dimensions is under some beautiful mature trees, so the pollinator garden is located across the way.
  • Typically, the further away you are from the building, the further away you are from your water source. The Dimensions pollinator garden required 250 feet of hose to get from the building to the garden. Getting a heavy-duty hose reel keeps all of that length manageable. Make sure the water is not scalding hot when you put it on the plants. Let the water run a little until it cools down. If you have an irrigation system and are not close to a water source, consider having an irrigation company install a hose riser near the site. For a small garden with difficult access to water, consider using a large rain barrel or other water reservoir that you bring water to once a week instead of every day. Teach children not to drink this water, as it will probably get a little funky in that barrel. But the plants will not mind.

Site Preparation: Sheet Mulching For the Win

You have the perfect site picked out, what next? The site must be cleared of existing vegetation to make way for the pollinator plants. There are several ways to do this:

  • If your chosen location has a lot of weeds or grass, take a full season to sheet mulch—a system of layering cardboard, compost and leaf litter to smother existing plants and start building a healthy soil profile. This takes more time, but is far less labor intensive than manually removing thick sod and weeds.
  • The Dimensions garden was funded through a grant from the National Environmental Education Fund, and we needed to complete the garden that year. So, we rented a sod cutter and tilled the area. The tilling activated a lot of dormant crabgrass seeds and it was several years before the desired plants started out-competing the undesired ones. 




Build Healthy Soils: Compost!

The healthier your soil, the healthier your garden! Adding compost to your garden bed will help replace nutrients in the soil, as well as help maintain good soil structure.

  • Add organic matter when preparing your garden bed, as well as at the beginning of each growing season as regular maintenance. What a great time to start composting! There are many options including vermiculture (worms!). Worm casings are a welcome addition to build healthy soil. 
  • Some plants are pollinators AND soil builders. Clover fixes nitrogen in the soil, making it more available to plants that need it. Look into dynamic accumulators too, such as Comfrey. 
  • Include pathways in your garden to direct where you walk. Avoid compacting the healthy soil you have work so hard to build.
  • As your garden goes dormant in the winter, do not cut back the lingering stems and seed pods too soon. This can be done in the spring.  Use them as loose parts for your indoor and outdoor classrooms.

Children in gardenPlant Selection

Each region will have different native plants for pollinators. In addition to internet resources, see if there is a native plant society in your area, or harness the expertise of a Master Gardener or a local nursery that focuses on native plants.

  • Plan for visibility. Many pollinators grow over 36” tall. If you are planting in a fenced play yard, plant taller species along the fence line and shorter species in front. You do not want to create supervision issues in your space. Planting just outside the fence line may help protect establishing plants.
  • Include both nectar plants and host plants, such as milkweed. Consider researching with children which butterflies lay eggs on which plants and which colors of flowers attract which insects.
  • Trees and shrubs are also pollinators! When seeking out a pollinator plant list for your region, consider adding trees and shrubs in addition to the traditional perennial plants.
  • Your garden should have something blooming throughout the season. You do want plant diversity, but not “one of everything.” Include children in charting when flowers are in bloom, in order to help you choose your plant list.
  • Group plant types together to create larger “targets” for the insects to see. 
  • Non-flowering native plants like tall grasses help provide shelter.
  • Consider a pollinator seed mix (appropriate for your region) to help plant larger areas. This approach comes with its own set of challenges, but is very cost effective for larger areas. At the Dimensions garden we planted some plants in four-inch pots and seeded the rest. 
  • When we plant for children, we often consider toxicity. Not all native plants are non-toxic. If you are gardening with very young children who explore the world with their mouths, be sure to select non-toxic species or supervise closely. 

Beyond Flowers

A well-planned pollinator garden will also have nesting spots—piles of brush, a decaying log, or bare earth for burrowing insects.

  • A “bug hotel” is a great class project. There are many how-to resources on the internet. The Entomologist blog offers great tips on what insects really need and how to keep your hotel healthy and usable.
  • Provide water at ground level in a shallow dish with stones. Butterflies need water too! 
  • Seating for students and teachers will help make the garden more usable. Add benches or a picnic table in and around your garden.

Children and Stinging Insects

Worried about bees? Plant your garden in one corner, so pollinators can be concentrated in one area and are not drawn to every part of your play yard. Anya says, “Do not bother bees, they are not interested in you.” She is right, but bee stings do happen and they can be very dangerous for those with bee allergies. Make sure your staff is always up-to-date on the safety protocols for your program and which children have known bee allergies. If EpiPens are a part of the first aid kit, make sure they have not expired.

Lawn Care

If you hire a lawn care service, make sure your new pollinator garden is very clearly marked, in addition to letting the service know your plan. Many a new garden has been mowed down by a well-meaning mower. If you use traditional lawn care, consider a service that focuses on organic practices. Many lawn services spray herbicides as part of routine care. Find out if they are treating your property. Use of these chemicals is detrimental to the pollinators we are trying to save. Herbicide drift, when the droplets of chemical drift beyond their intended target, can hurt your garden. Good news! Many “weeds” are pollinators too! So, do not worry about clover and dandelions in your lawn. Welcome them! Avoid the use of pesticides.


US Forest Service:

Pollinator Partnership:

Monarch Weigh Station:

Xerces Society:

Books For Children

“The Thing About Bees : A Love Letter” by Shabazx Larking

“Flowers are Calling” by Rita Grey

“Flower Talk : How Plants Use Color to Communicate” by Sara Levine

Books For Gardening

“Pollinator Victory Garden: Win the War on Pollinator Decline with Ecological Gardening; Attract and Support Bees, Beetles, Butterflies, Bats, and Other Pollinators” by Kim Eierman

“Birds, Bees, & Butterflies: Bringing Nature Into Your Yard & Garden” by Nancy J. Hajeski

Jill Primak is lead outdoor classroom designer with Dimensions Educational Research Foundation's Nature Explore Program. With degrees in Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, and over a decade of experience designing outdoor environments for children, she is passionate about connecting people of all ages with the natural world. In addition to her work with Dimensions she enjoys serving on the board of the Southern Heights Food Forest in Lincoln, Nebraska, spending time with her daughter, Anya, and singing in a punk rock band.

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