During blooming season and in warmer climates, plants and trees in outdoor childcare settings may capture the attention of young children and peek their curiosity. Young children love things that grow. Shiny leaves, fuzzy leaves, colorful berries, soft flower petals, bulbs, seed pods, and sharp thorns can seem too hard to resist.
Many childcare programs may take advantage of the interest children show in nature to help them learn to safely enjoy the environment. By integrating plant themes into curriculum, including outside activities and field trips, there will be ample opportunity to teach children how to care for plants.
It is the adult’s responsibility to select safe plants, just like you would select safe toys. A significant way that children learn is through their senses and touching is an essential part of education.
Children can learn that they should not eat or touch any plants unless they have asked an adult. Plant safety education for children is important, but it is the responsibility of the caregivers to know which plants are poisonous and should be removed from children’s access, as well as what to do if a child eats or touches toxic plants.
Prevention combined with supervision is important in planning for a safe environment both inside and outside the childcare setting. Learning about plants and plant safety can be important lessons learned in childcare.
Reactions from Plants
While most plants are safe for young children, some common plants are poisonous when eaten. Others can cause allergic reactions if touched. Plants with thorns may pierce skin and result in painful punctures. Young children, especially crawlers and toddlers, should be closely supervised if playing in an area where plants are accessible.
Plants vary in their levels of toxicity and a child’s weight can affect how much of the plant’s toxins can cause mild irritations or more serious problems. For example, the leaf of philodendron, a common household plant, can cause mild throat and mouth irritation and vomiting for a 50-pound preschooler while a 15-pound infant who eats several leaves might choke or have a serious allergic reaction.
Childcare administrators should know which outdoor plants in their area are dangerous for children. Contact your local health department, Cooperative Extension office, or poison control center for a list of these plants and share with staff and parents. Also include lists of common indoor plants that should not be in settings where young children are present.
Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac can be found on the ground, on trees or shrubs, and even on sandy areas like playground sand or the beach. “Leaves of three, let it be” can be both a counting lesson—one, two, three—as well as a lesson to stay clear of plants with three leaves, such as poison ivy.
When a child comes in contact with poison ivy, an oily substance called urushiol is transferred to the skin and can then be transferred to clothing, toys, and even pets. The rash that develops on the skin can last up to a month and is typically treated with a steroid cream that reduces itching. During rainy periods, mushrooms or other fungi may quickly appear. Eating mushrooms can cause reactions in young children. Check your grounds for fungi after each heavy rain.
Caring for Our Children recommends that childcare settings:
- Keep all plants away from young children.
- Teach children to not touch or eat plants.
- Phone the Poison Control Center 800-222-1222 if a child has eaten or been exposed to a plant.
Many childcare programs, including family settings, may have garden spaces that are part of the curriculum. A vegetable garden can be a great learning experience for young children. Pulling a carrot from the ground is fun and teaches how vegetables grow through hands-on experience. Nutrition education can be incorporated into vegetable gardening.
Keep in mind that young children have very limited abilities in discerning differences between safe and toxic plants, and only safe ones should be included in the garden. Avoid garden plants like rhubarb that have an edible stalk, but a toxic leaf. It can be confusing for a two-year-old to differentiate between the toxic rhubarb leaf and an edible lettuce leaf.
Most young children will have difficulty understanding that a red strawberry is good to eat but a red holly berry can cause vomiting. These colorful plants are exciting to children and may look good to eat. Therefore, the outdoor environment should contain no poisonous plants.
Safety steps can assure that children not be in contact with poisonous parts of a plant. The first step is to remove potentially toxic plants and create a safer environment. After that, supervision is key to safety for young children playing in outdoor areas.
Regularly check the outdoor area for poisonous plants. An area that was plant-free a month ago may have a dangerous plant growing just a few weeks later. Never assume that because birds and dogs can safely eat a plant or berry that young children can also eat them.
While you may be able to control the access children have to plants inside and outside your childcare setting, field trips pose additional safety concerns. Even a walk through a nearby park could result in exposure to poison ivy, which for most young children will result in an allergic reaction.
When planning field trips or hikes, have children wear clothing with long sleeves and long pants that will reduce contact with irritating plants. There are also barrier products that can provide protection from plants such as poison ivy. As with any prescription or over-the-counter medication, the local procedure and state childcare licensing requirements must be followed and documented.
For outdoor play and field trips, make sure that a first aid kit is accessible that includes products that can treat a variety of problems such as the removal of a thorn or a cut from a sharp leaf or stick. Although there are challenges to field trips, the educational value can be high and so can the fun. They are worth the additional planning and supervision required.
Caring for Our Children, National Health and Safety Performance Standards; Guidelines for Early Care and Education Programs, 3rd Edition,
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/plants
Cornell University’s Poisonous Plant Database, www.ansci.cornell.edu/plants/index.html
University of Pennsylvania’s Poisonous Plants, cal.vet.upenn.edu/projects/poison/index.html