Relevancy and Engagement

Growing Plants in Science and Literature, More Than an Empty Pot (Grades 3-5)

Grade Level
3 - 5

Students use the story of The Empty Pot to explore literature and science, practicing story mapping and examining the needs of plants and the importance of soil and water. Like the characters in the story, students plant and observe the growth of seeds. Grades 3-5

Estimated Time
Two 60-minute sessions plus observation time
Materials Needed

Activity 1: Mapping the Story of the Empty Pot

  • The Empty Pot by Demi
  • Story Map handout (optional)

Activity 2: Science Journal

  • 4 two-liter bottles with the tops cut off 
  • Potting soil to fill the bottles 
  • 4-5 seeds for each bottle
  • Science Journal Pattern, 2 per student (optional)
  • Chenille stems or yarn (optional)

folktale: story from an oral tradition that may be a blend of history and legend

minerals: the inorganic (nonliving) particles in soils that weather from rocks

natural resources: materials or substances such as minerals, forests, water, and fertile land that occur in nature and can be used for economic gain

organic matter: a soil component derived from the decay of once-living organisms like plants and animals

photosynthesis: the process by which plants convert carbon dioxide, water, and light energy into sugars and oxygen in order to store energy; the opposite of cell respiration

soil: a mixture of minerals, organic matter, water, and air, which forms on the land surface and can support the growth of plants

Did You Know?
  • All seeds need moisture, oxygen, and the right temperature to germinate, or grow. Until they have these conditions, the seed remains dormant and does nothing.1
  • Seeds don’t grow well if they land right underneath the parent plant. There’s not enough light, water or nutrients here.1
  • Some seeds are carried to new places by the wind.1
  • Animals often eat seeds. The seeds come out in the animal’s poop. They drop to the ground and make new plants.1
Background Agricultural Connections

The story of The Empty Pot is a folktale. A folktale is a traditional story that is passed on by word of mouth and is modified by successive retelling before being written down or recorded. The Empty Pot revolves around an Emperor of China and his love for plants, especially flowers. He has a beautiful garden and carefully tends to the needs of the plants. As the Emperor grows older, he decides that he needs to choose an heir. The Emperor gives seeds to the children of his kingdom and tells them that the one who brings back the most beautiful flower will be named as his heir. Only one boy is chosen, not because of his beautiful flower but because of his honesty.

The Emperor tended to his garden very carefully, so he must have understood the needs of plants and seeds. The children of the kingdom also knew how to plant seeds so that they would grow into beautiful flowers. Understanding seeds enables us to grow not only pretty flowers but also food to eat. Fruits, vegetables, and grains are all plants that farmers grow. Even meat and dairy foods cannot be produced without growing plants. The livestock that produce meat and dairy need plants to eat.

Seeds are well equipped to survive and sprout into healthy plants. The outer part of the seed, or seed coat, protects the inner plant embryo, which will become the new plant. To sprout and grow, a seed needs moisture (water) and an optimum temperature (some seeds germinate better at warmer temperatures, and others at cooler temperatures). The seed’s cotyledons or endosperm contain the necessary energy for the seed to grow until the first true leaves appear and the plant can begin to make its own food through photosynthesis. As the plant continues to grow, it will need a steady supply of water, minerals (from the soil or from fertilizers), light, and air. Just like seeds, growing plants also do best with optimum temperatures (some like it hot—eggplant, tomatoes, cucumbers; some like it cool—peas, lettuce, spinach).

Soil and water are among our most valuable natural resources. Water carries nutrients to plant roots and transports nutrients from the roots to the stems and leaves where they are used in the plant. Too much water can make plants susceptible to disease and even drown them (plant roots need air too!), but too little water will make plants stunted, and without any water plants will die.

Soil provides plants with support and protection for their roots as well as the nutrients that they need to grow. Organic matter is a key component of healthy soil, helping the soil absorb and hold water for plants to use and releasing nutrients as it decomposes. Organic matter is made up of decomposed and decomposing material that was once alive (fallen leaves, animal waste, etc.). Plants and animals are important to soil, just as soil is important to plants and animals. Potting soil that you buy at the store is mostly organic matter. It is much lighter than the soil in your garden or your yard, which has a large mineral component. The mineral component of soil comes from rocks that have weathered into small particles of sand, silt, and clay. While organic matter was once living, the mineral component of soil is nonliving.

The germination of a seed is a fascinating process to watch, and students of all ages enjoy planting, observing, and caring for plants as they grow and become beautiful flowers, fruits, vegetables, shrubs, and trees.

  1. Prior to starting the activities for this lesson, introduce the students to the story of The Empty Pot. Hold up the book and activate prior knowledge by asking the students to describe what they see on the cover. Discuss the artwork, the concept of a folktale, the depiction of the boy on the cover, and some general cultural aspects of China. 
  2. Ask students what they think the pot in the boy’s arms might be used for. Lead them to the idea that it could be used to grow a plant. Discuss with the students what plants need to grow. Further the discussion with the following questions:
    • What grows in a garden? (vegetables, fruits, flowers)
    • How do we get gardens to grow? (prepare the soil, sow the seeds, water the seeds, pull the weeds)
    • What does a plant need to grow? (water, nutrients, light, air, and a temperature that’s not too hot and not too cold) 
    • Does the weather have an effect on seed and plant growth? (yes! rain provides water, but a storm can cause a flood or bring hail that damages plants; temperature, wind, and sunlight all affect plants) 
Explore and Explain

Activity 1: Mapping the Story of The Empty Pot

  1. Discuss with students how symbols on a map indicate notable features. In addition, discuss the symbols that students see every day at home, school, and when traveling. These include symbols on the restrooms at school; stop, warning, and directional signs while traveling; and symbols used to represent different games or apps on smart phones and tablets. Explain to students that stories can be mapped using symbols to help remember the characters and the story.
  2. Read The Empty Pot to the students. Encourage students to visualize the characters, settings, and events as they listen. After reading the story, they will be mapping it. 
  3. Discuss the setting, main characters, and problem presented in the story and chart the sequence of events. You may wish to use the Story Map handout to facilitate this process. Ask students to list all of the events that took place in the story and write them on the board. Review the story, focusing students’ attention on the sequence of main events. Emphasize what happened first, next, and then... 
  4. As students agree upon the order of listed events, number these in sequence. 
  5. Ask each student (or group of students) to illustrate one of the story’s events. Story illustrations can then be displayed in a vertical or a horizontal sequence, in a circular pattern, or as a winding trail that traces the movements of the characters. The story map the class creates will not only help students retell the story, but will also increase their comprehension and retention.
  6. Another strategy to assist with reading comprehension is “concept mapping” or “concept webbing.” Concept maps use a web of words or pictures and connecting lines to associate concepts and vocabulary. Go back to the text of The Empty Pot, and have the students find words that are plant- or garden-related (e.g. seed, soil, etc.). Place the word in the center of a whiteboard or piece of paper and then connect other associative words to it with lines. For younger students, pictures can be used in place of words. 

Activity 2: Science Journal

  1. Tell students that they are now going to explore what plants need to grow so that they can be as knowledgeable about plants as the Emperor from The Empty Pot. Explain that it is important to learn about plants because they provide us with the food that we eat. Vegetables, fruits, and grains all come from plants. Even meat and dairy foods cannot be produced without growing plants. The livestock that produce meat and dairy need plants to eat. 
  2. Based on the anticipatory set discussion about how weather affects plant growth, review how weather events like rainfall can affect the planting or harvesting of plants. Some water is necessary for plant growth, but too much water can make plants sick, and a flood can wash away a whole garden or farm field.
  3. To demonstrate the effects of weather on plants, conduct an experiment by planting seeds into two-liter bottles containing soil. Planting the seeds next to the perimeter of the bottles and wrapping the bottle with black construction paper will ensure that the roots grow into view. This activity will take four to five days of observation. The following procedure may be conducted by the students or as a demonstration by the teacher for students to observe. 
  4. Divide the class into four groups. Each group will need a two-liter bottle containing potting soil and four to five seeds.
  5. Ask each group to do one of the following to see how moisture affects seed germination (light is not necessary until the seeds germinate or sprout):
    • Plant seeds into moist soil and then place the bottle in a warm location. (Don’t add water while you are waiting for the seeds to germinate. Seeds should germinate and sprout in four to five days.)
    • Plant seeds into dry soil. Don’t water these seeds. Place the bottle in a warm location. (These seeds should just stay dormant, not growing. If they are watered later, they will sprout).
    • Plant seeds into saturated, wet soil. Place the bottle in a warm location and keep the soil soggy wet. (These seeds should not germinate well and may begin to rot or grow mold.)
    • Plant seeds into bottles with moist soil, then place bottles in a cold location (outside in the winter or in a refrigerator). (These seeds should either not germinate or take a longer than the others to germinate.)
  6. Have students observe, record, and draw the results that they observe. You may choose to have students make and decorate their own journal for this purpose using the Science Journal Pattern
  7. After the experiment is completed, review with the students the things needed for plant growth: 
    • water (not too much and not too little)
    • temperature (not too warm and not too cold)
    • light (for photosynthesis)
    • nutrients (provided by soil which also holds water and supports plant roots)
    • air
  8. Ask students to identify whether each of these things needed for plant growth is living or nonliving. Discuss how living plants depend on nonliving things. 
  9. Ask students if they think plants depend on any living things. Discuss the once-living component of soil called organic matter. Explain that organic matter comes from decomposing things that were once alive or came from a living thing, like fallen leaves and manure. Organic matter is essential to healthy soil because it provides nutrients that plants need to grow and helps the soil absorb and hold water. Potting soil, like that used in the experiment, is mostly made up of organic matter.
  • Enter your zip code in the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to show students your growing zone and what that means for when different vegetables, flowers, perennials, herbs, and fruits should be transplanted or seeded in the garden.

  • Watch a reading of The Empty Pot by actor Rami Malek.

  • Show the three-minute video Soils Are Living from the Soil Science Society of America and discuss how plants depend on other living things to create a healthy soil environment.

  • Use the My Little Seed House lesson plan for grades K-2 to further explore seeds, germination, and the basic needs of plants.


After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:

  • Plants need water, nutrients, light, and air to grow.
  • Plants depend on living and nonliving things.
  • Soil and water are important natural resources. 
Vanae Morris
Utah Agriculture in the Classroom
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