Photosynthesis for Kids: The Science Behind the Sun and Your Garden

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To a kid standing in a sunny garden, it may not seem like much is happening. A butterfly flaps by, or a bird visits the bird feeder. But since they can’t see any change in the growing fruits, vegetables, or flowers around them, they may think nothing much is happening. 

A quick explanation of photosynthesis can help kids to understand that not only are the plants in the garden working hard to make their own food, but that this amazing process is the reason there’s any life on Earth at all! 

Here’s how you can explain the process of photosynthesis to your kids, and help them understand what’s happening in the garden every single day.

What is Photosynthesis?

Every living thing has to have a source of energy if it’s going to stay alive. Energy is what keeps our bodies growing and our brains working. 

People and animals get their energy from the food we eat, like fruits and vegetables. But where do the fruits and vegetables get their energy?

Unlike people who have to eat energy, plants make their own. They do it through a process called photosynthesis.

How Does Photosynthesis Work?

Photosynthesis is a chemical process that takes place at the cellular level inside leaves. It  requires three important ingredients in order to work. 

Carbon Dioxide

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a gas in the air all around us. When people and animals exhale, they’re emitting carbon dioxide. This is great news for plants, who need it to survive. 

Water

When we water our plants, we’re providing them with one of the key components to their energy creation process.

Sunlight

The rays of the sun are what bring it all together. This solar energy fuels the process that turns CO2 and water into the food the plant needs.  

So what does the process look like?

First, the plant has to gather the raw materials that it needs to create the photosynthesis reaction. The leaves “breathe in” the carbon dioxide in the air through their leaves. Water is soaked up by the roots, traveling through the plant stem and into the leaves. And sunlight lands on the leaves and gets absorbed through the surface. 

Inside the leaves, there are tiny microscopic structures called chloroplasts. And inside these chloroplasts is chlorophyll, a green pigment. This is what makes most leaves and grasses green. The chlorophyll traps that light energy from the sun, and then uses it to power a chemical reaction that converts carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and glucose (a kind of sugar).

The plant doesn’t need much of this oxygen, so it “breathes” most of it out into the air. This is good news for people and animals, because we have to breathe that oxygen in to survive. The glucose will stay inside the plant as food. The plant will combine that food with nutrients from the soil to make more leaves, flowers, fruits, or vegetables. 

By making that glucose, the plant has essentially made its own food. And it will use that glucose to grow!

What About Plants That Don’t Have Green Leaves?

It’s true that some plants have red or purple leaves. But they still have green chlorophyll inside. They just have other pigments in their leaves that mask the green pigment from the chlorophyll. 

Regardless of the color of the leaves, all plants go through photosynthesis. Even plants like the Venus Fly Traps that “eat” bugs still get most of their energy from photosynthesis. They just rely on bugs for additional nutrients that aren’t provided by the soil.

Photosynthesis in the Garden

The process of photosynthesis—turning sunlight into energy—explains why plants need light in order to grow. Kids may wonder if light is so important, why don’t we put all of our plants in full sun?

While sunlight is important, too much hot sun can scorch the leaves and actually prevent them from doing their job. The heat from the sun causes the water in the leaves to dry up. And without water, the leaves won’t be able to complete the process of photosynthesis. So in hot places like in Texas, we have to be careful to ensure that plants don’t get more sun than they can handle.

The process of photosynthesis is where so much of life on Earth begins. This energy creation process is why we have wheat, rice, apples, potatoes, pumpkins, and every other fruit and vegetable. Without photosynthesis, there would be no produce, no animals, and no people. 

It’s an amazing process, and it’s happening in your backyard right now.

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