Homeschooling on the Spectrum, Post #4: The Sunflower Lesson

Beth hates libraries. It could be the lighting, the rows of books that aren’t perfectly placed, the large windows that show her the outside world she would rather be in, past negative experiences with story times, or many other things.  Unfortunately, her hatred of libraries is a bit of an issue since we homeschool and need a lot of books. To combat her library opposition, I launched “Operation Library.” Our mission was to get in, look at books very quickly, pick up a book or two, get out, and, over repeated visits, figure out strategies to help Beth tolerate library visits. During one library tolerance mission, Beth was not doing well, so I grabbed a couple of random books off shelves and escaped the situation as quickly as possible. And in a wonderful stroke of luck, one book I grabbed led to this lesson on sunflowers.

Camille and the Sunflowers

Camille and the Sunflowers ( is one of a series of art-inspired children’s books by author Laurence Anholt ( .  In Camille and the Sunflowers, the author weaved together a story based on Van Gogh’s paintings of The Roulin Family (, one of which was a painting of a little boy Camille, and Van Gogh’s paintings of sunflowers ( I had to boil the story down a bit for Beth because the book was meant for a higher grade level, but it kept her attention because she was attracted to the colorful illustrations and beautiful copies of Van Gogh’s paintings. By chance we have one of Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings near us at the Philadelphia Art Museum.  It was the same museum where I attended a fabulous temporary exhibit in 2001 called Van Gogh: Face to Face (, where I was lucky enough to see all the paintings mentioned in the book first hand. I thought, wouldn’t it be great to teach Beth about about art in a hands on way as preparation for an eventual museum visit? And that thought lead to our first experience in art appreciation (and much more) through a study of sunflowers.

Camille and the Sunflowers

Camille and the Sunflowers

The Hunt for Sunflowers

In an attempt to find sunflowers to study, we visited our local organic farm, Longview Farm and Market (  It is a wonderful organic farm with pick your own flowers, herbs, and fruit.  There is a store full of healthy foods and goods, animals to visit, and a variety of community activities that are offered on the farm throughout the year.

With Beth’s scissors in hand so she could practice her cutting skills on flowers, we made our way to the pick-your-own flower and herb garden.  The sunflowers were mostly dead because we visited so late in the season, but it gave me the opportunity to show Beth the seeds of the sunflower and have her a remove a few. Removing sunflower seeds was a great pincer grasp activity and seeing the seeds triggered another idea for the lesson, growing sunflowers from seeds (more on that later in the post).



Although the sunflowers were dead, there were plenty of other beautiful flowers.  Beth loved to smell and cut the flowers, and liked looking at the bees in the garden.

In the flower and herb garden area, there was a nice sized chicken coup with chickens of all shapes, sizes, and colors.  Beth learned that chickens scratch and peck to find food.  She also learned that their “cluck” or “bok bok” is too loud and sudden for her taste.  Moving on…

Longview Market and Farm has a wonderful natural-looking sand “box” with long-handled rakes, shovels, and hoes. What a fantastic idea! Since Beth hates sitting on the ground to play with sand, this was the perfect set up for her. She liked raking to make lines and pressing lines in the sand with the back of the rake.


We made our way to the market. Beth is enamored with our bathroom scale.  She loves to “look at the O” as she calls it. Which means she hops on our scale repeatedly and watches the dial move and eventually land back on zero. So she was definitely happy to find this large scale outside the farm store.


And inside the store we found sunflowers!  So we picked up a bundle for a gift and for our studies and stood in line to check out, which is generally a challenge for Beth.  But not to worry….


The store has apple cider slushies and cookies (including gluten-free and organic varieties) to help Beth wait in line.


We arranged the flowers in a vase to give to a friend as a housewarming gift, and we kept one sunflower so we could study it.


Sunflower Art

We first made drawings of sunflowers. For some reason, although it is well-known that drawing precedes writing letters (, most milestones charts I have seen for young children with developmental delays only lists drawing circles and lines as goals. Beth has been stuck drawing lines and circles for years and I did not know how to help her move on. The answer for us was to do side-by-side drawings, where I draw my representation of an object (in this case the sunflower) on one side and she draws hers on the other. I do some guiding by demonstrating while I draw my picture, pointing to areas on her page, moving my finger above her page to demonstrate strokes while I use language I know she understands (go around the circle, color the circle, go down, etc.). But Beth’s drawing involved no hand-over-hand and often she was making her own decisions and making purposeful strokes of her own creation. I plan to back off more and more in the guiding over time.


Next we made sunflower paintings like Van Gogh’s in the Camille and the Sunflowers book.  I wanted Beth to control the brush on her own, but without some guidance she would just paint the entire canvas one color.  I decided to use a two-step process, using a template for the circles and then filling in the other details after the circles dried.  We used cans to makes the circles, and I cut both ends of the cans with a can opener (I used this one which does not leave sharp edges  For each circle she made, I asked Beth if she wanted a small, medium, or large can.  When she answered, I gave her the can and she placed the can on the canvas.  I held it in place as she painted the canvas inside the can. This was a great hands-on way to work on the concept of small, medium, and large.




After the circles dried, I had Beth add yellow and orange petals around the circles.  It quickly became clear that dabbing paint or making small brush strokes around the circles was something new and challenging to her, so we practiced dabbing on a separate piece of paper and then returned to finish the paintings. Then I directed her to add the green stems by pointing where to start and instructing her to go “down” with her stroke. The paintings came out remarkably well!



Planting Sunflowers

It was late in the season to plant sunflowers, so I went to a high-end nursery and they had some seeds left (Lowes and many other stores were out of seeds). If you want to plant in a container, make sure to get the smaller sized sunflowers (there are several kinds, we planted the Teddy Bear variety).  My goal was to get something to sprout to show Beth the seed to sprout process.  If we get a sunflower eventually it will be an added bonus!

I had an unused plastic container, so we made holes in the bottom with a drill so that water could drain from the bottom. Beth is usually terrified of drills, so it was a big surprise that she came over to me while I was drilling and wanted to try it.


Next we added the soil and Beth liked ripping the tops off of the bags and scooping the dirt into the container.



But soon she realized it would take a long time to transfer all the dirt, so she started lifting the bag. It was not easy, but she persisted and was able to manipulate the heavy bag and dump its contents, as shown in the picture and video below.


Next we planted the seeds per the directions on the packet. We counted the seeds as we planted.  We covered the seeds, she watered them, then she helped me sweep some. I was shocked at how much she participated and how much she enjoyed it. We had tried gardening the last 2 seasons and we made little progress, but this year it was a success.  Then we watered and waited for a sprout.




From Seed to Sprout Activities

Four days later we saw a sunflower sprout! I remembered a poem from the book Read Aloud Rhymes for the Very Young (, and I read it to her as we looked at her new little sprout.IMG_4982


To reinforce the idea of growing a flower, we read From Seed to Plant by Gail Gibbons ( and did a sequencing cut-paste-color activity (

Sequencing Activity

A Nice Beginning

The sunflower lesson, which I consider our first lesson plan for Kindergarten, really resonated with Beth and it felt effortless and fun. Somehow it just all fell into place and we were able to incorporate nearly all subjects during the process. The successful lesson gives me confidence that we are heading in the right direction in our approach to homeschooling. And what is that approach? I basically teach Beth like I would any other kid, with some minor tweaks to help guide and hold her attention.


5 thoughts on “Homeschooling on the Spectrum, Post #4: The Sunflower Lesson

  1. What an awesome read.. thanks for sharing.

  2. Emma says:

    Great ideas! The paintings are beautiful, too. 🙂

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