Growing Tomatoes in Preschool Gardens

Overview from the North Carolina Outdoor Learning Environments Alliance:

There is tremendous value in gardening with children. Tomatoes can bring much learning, day by day wonder as fruit grows, flare and yes . . . delicious fruit to eat! There has been some controversy over growing tomatoes in licensed child care centers because the leaves and stems of tomato plants have mild toxicity. Our state leaders have engaged in research and case studies and have determined that the toxicity levels of the leaves and stem are very low. Ingesting them would be problematic only in large quantities, and there is no evidenceor cases to indicate that tomatoes should be prohibited from the outdoor learning environment for children 3 years of age or older. Tomato plants are not recommended for infants and toddler areas because children of this developmental stage enjoy exploring their environment with their mouths.

Why should we grow tomatoes? There are many reasons to grow tomatoes. One is that they grow in abundance in North Carolina and provide nutritious and delicious fruit for meals and snacks. From a seed or young plant, children learn firsthand that tomatoes come from our garden, not just the food shelf. Children learn the concepts of smaller and larger as the fruit grows. They learn colors and shapes as the fruit ripens. Different kinds of tomatoes offer the opportunity to compare and contrast their size, color, firmness, and taste. Some varieties ripen in late spring and some extend into the autumn. Children can count how many tomatoes are on the vine, how many are ready to pick today and how much today’s harvest weighs. How many tomatoes will one plant produce? How can we prepare tomatoes? What does it look like inside? Which kind is my favorite? Imagine all the graphing, documentation, art, celebration and learning that can occur.

You don’t have a garden? We all have different skills and abilities when it comes to growing plants. Some of us have “green thumbs” and some have never tried. The tomato just might be your first successful gardening adventure. If you have never gardened, you might try a few container plants of tomatoes. Place them in the sun and give them good soil and water them often. You may find yourself and the children in your class growing more fruits and vegetables after this success!

You are an experienced gardener? You have probably experienced success with tomatoes at home or in the gardens “outside your fence”. Now, you can grow tomatoes and offer preschool children an “up close and personal” experience with the life cycle of a tomato! Enjoy!


This post is from a series of FAQ about child care outdoor learning environment regulations in North Carolina. Please see the intro post, here, for more information.

Are tomatoes allowed?

From the North Carolina Rated License Assessment Project:

We would defer to CEHP and DCDEE on this topic.  Additionally, for the ERS involving children in the process of gardening through planning, discussion, provision of tools, specific jobs/tasks such as weeding or harvesting, observation and reflection, etc. is considered in the science item. Hand washing is required when children return indoors after gardening.

From the North Carolina Division of Child Development and Early Education:

Yes, growing tomatoes inside your licensed child care outdoor learning environment is fine for children 3 years of age or older. Gardens are acceptable but would need to be maintained. Growing tomato plants in infant and toddler play areas (children 2 years of age or younger) is not allowed.

From the North Carolina Children’s Environmental Health Branch:

Hand washing is required after outdoor activity including gardening. It is important to harvest the ripened fruit to prevent it from falling to the ground and attracting vermin. The use of pesticides is not recommended for gardens in licensed child care programs.

Tomatoes ripening on the vine.

Growing tomatoes

Tending to the tomatoes