health / history / Kids and vegetables / kitchen science

The Unloved Spud

For many households, a potato dish will be included on the Thanksgiving menu. Before you start to mash, bake or roast those spuds, invite children in your home to take a look and ponder these tubers. Here is another opportunity for learning; learning about another vegetable, where they come from, how they grow, how to cook them, and even its role in historical events. (Hint: Potatoes arrived in the colonies about the same time as the first Thanksgiving feast or around 1621, so it is unclear if they were on that menu.In fact, the white potato was still uncommon in Europe, so it is unlikely the Pilgrims had potatoes. There were other tubers, like sunchokes or the Jerusalem artichoke, that were consumed by Native Americans in the Northeast and could have been shared at that first Thanksgiving.).

To make sense of how to use the following sections and lists of activities, please read the section on the blog called “What is Guiding Curiosity.”




Where does building knowledge start? Most often with a question that inspires seeking an answer.


What does a potato look like?


Are there different kinds of potatoes? How many different kinds?




How are they cooked and do they all taste the same?


Where do potatoes come from?


How do they grow? What does a potato plant look like? Yes, potatoes grow from a plant. This is a critical place to start. Secondly, like other vegetables that grow the same way, potatoes are referred to as tubers. That is, there is a visible plant above ground and the potatoes or tubers are underneath the ground with the tubers growing at the end of the root system. Potatoes and yams are tubers. Sweet potatoes are technically a tuberous root, but that lesson in botany can wait. You can find pictures (or look at those included in this post) of what these look like.




Is the way that potatoes grow different from how other vegetables grow? Tubers are distinct from taproot vegetables such as carrots, jicama, turnips, and beets. Onions and garlic are bulbs. Again, a fine-grained distinction, but if your child is interested in botany, why not go there?



Observe and Compare

Surely you have a potato or two in your home at some time. Let your child hold them, turning them over to explore the whole spud. Take a closer look with a magnifying glass.


What do you see? If you have more than one potato, do they look different? How do they look different?


How do they feel?





Cut one open. What does the inside look like versus the skin? What does the inside feel like? Does it have a smell?


If you are okay purchasing a variety of potatoes, the differences between them will make these observations even more interesting and fun. Think of purchasing a yam, a sweet potato, a baking potato, and a boiling potato (white, red, Russet, purple, fingerling). You can also find bags of fingerling potatoes with white, yellow and purple potatoes. There are over a 100 different varieties available. Take time to look, smell, touch, and taste. If you don’t want to buy different types, take a look and maybe a touch when in the produce section of the grocery store. Your child should notice different colors, shapes, different textures (of skin and interiors), and different smells. Help to find the language that best describes those differences, such as feels rougher or bumpier, smoother, waxy, moist, or grittier.




Boil different types potato slices until soft. After they have cooled, do a taste test. How do they taste? Are there differences? How would you describe those differences? Help your child choose to taste with the skin on or off, her preference.


If you have multiple potatoes of different types, sort or categorize these by whatever criteria your child finds interesting, or size, color, or taste preference.




Do you have any potatoes that have been sitting around for a while and have begun to sprout buds? Take a close look. What are these?




Directions will be provided below for growing your own potatoes. Once those plants begin to grow, invite your child to make daily observations, sketching what the emerging plant looks like. Take a closer look with a magnifying glass. Are there different parts to the plant, or a stem and leaves? What function do these different plant parts serve? That is, what do the roots do (you may need a picture of these as they may not be readily observable)? What is the function of the stem (to carry nutrients up to the plant), or the leaves (with the sun’s help, the leaves through the process of photosynthesis create food for the plant)? Potato plants do flower or have pink and white flowers. If you don’t live in an area where these can be observed (Idaho, Maine), perhaps you find a photo on this blog or elsewhere. What do these flowers do (attract insects to pollinate)? Potato seeds are produced in the flowers.






How many potatoes do you eat over a week, or how many times do you enjoy potatoes with a meal (this may be easier if consuming French fries, hash browns, or mashed potatoes when the individual potatoes are not easily counted)?  Count and keep track of potatoes consumed.




Weigh a potato (with the smaller potatoes this is probably easier) before and after it is boiled or baked (whole is probably easier). Does it weigh more or less after it is cooked?


Compare the weights of different kinds of potatoes. Perhaps the easiest way to accomplish this since the sizes are not uniform is to cut potatoes into small pieces and compare the weight of a ½ cup of two different kinds. Ask your child how to get comparative weights. Just putting potatoes on a balance scale could be sufficiently fun and informative.



If you have a bag of fingerling potatoes, count how many make a pound. Guess or predict how many baking potatoes you would need to make a pound.


Count the spuds or eyes on a potato.


See more options for measuring in the next section.




Cook potatoes in different ways, determining which recipe is a favorite. Boil, roast, fry, bake and compare how the results taste. Ask around. How do friends and relatives like their potatoes – as French Fries, mashed, boiled, roasted, baked, potato chips, or in other foods such as stews or soups. Consider graphing these responses.


Grow a potato. You can grow potatoes from seeds, but this is a long process, and the directions below will start with a sprouting potato (also known as a seed potato) which will shorten the growing time.




As there are different kinds of potatoes, your child might benefit a great deal from trying to grow several different kinds at once. The potatoes and their plants will look distinct, and they will grow at different rates, differences that are informative.


You can also suggest experimenting with what potato plants need in order to grow well. That is, vary light, water, and temperature or soil conditions to see what a growing potato likes best. See more below.


To grow a potato you will need one with a bud (eye or spout). How do you get a potato to sprout? You can use sweet potatoes and yams as well. Your first experiment starts here. Most potatoes will sprout all by themselves if left alone. But do they sprout sooner if in the dark versus in the sunlight? If moisture is added, in terms of a wet paper towel, do they sprout faster? Take a couple of potatoes of the same or different varieties. Place some in a box, close it up and put it in a cool dark place. You can add a second box with a source of moisture or a wet paper towel.  Now put a couple of potatoes, or a variety, in a bowl that is then placed on the windowsill. You should wait a couple of weeks (about 3 ½ – 4 – keep track on a calendar how many days before you see a sprout). Which group (in the dark or sunlight, with or without moisture, or which variety) has sprouts? Which group has a larger sprout (measure) or a greater number of sprouts (count)?




Now that you have potatoes with buds/sprouts/eyes let the growing begin. If you only want to see a stem and leaves produced, then cut the sprouting potato in a fairly large section. It needs to be large enough so that the cut part or bottom can extend below the lip of a jar and into water. Place toothpicks in the potato so that the ends will extend to the lip of the jar and will keep that section of potato upright. Remember that the cut part of the potato has to extend into the water in the jar. Place the jar in a sunny spot. Check the water levels daily (You may want to determine through questions if your child understands how plants are watered when outside and no one is watering them). How many days until the eye or bud begins to grow? Sketch pictures of the growing stem and leaves from when it first appears over several different days. What direction does it grow (towards the sun)? When does it develop leaves or how many days into the experiment before a leaf is visible? Here is a site that will help with illustrations of this process that your child might find helpful.


If you have a child who wants to grow a plant that actually produces a potato, you will need to place these potato pieces with the sprouts into a large container, such as a 12” pot (a 5-gallon bucket maybe better as it will allow for more potatoes to grow). Find a pot with good drainage and fill the bottom with potting soil, or soil for growing edible plants. Plant the piece of potato with a sprout about 6” below the surface. You should leave some room to add more soil later. Add water and place the pot in a cool place (you can ask your child where he thinks the pot should go and why?). Continue to water over time, but not too much (make this a daily responsibility). Give the plant about two weeks to see the sprouts poking through the surface of the soil. Invite your child to chart the number of days until the sprouts appear. Now you can move the pot to a spot that gets sunshine. You will also need to add more soil to cover those sprouts. This sounds counterintuitive but helps the potatoes to grow.

Ask your child when she thinks the potatoes will be ready to harvest. Make a prediction. If you have several plants, dig them up at various intervals. But make these intervals reasonably far apart as it may take months. When the leaves and vines die, you can harvest your potatoes (hopefully there is something there!).




Ask your child what factors are important for helping the potatoes grow. Prompt for ideas like sunlight, water (not too little, not too much), and temperature. If you plant more than one potato in soil or have several in jars, consider placing these in different spots around the house so that there are variations in growing conditions. Ask your child where to put those jars. You might also want to vary the quality of the soil. You can use a potting soil as suggested, or a sandy soil, or regular soil from your yard. What works best?


Remember that all of these experiments can be done with different types of potatoes at different times, or for comparison if grown simultaneously. Consider also growing avocado seeds (use toothpicks again and submerge a portion in water), carrots (cut the tops off and place in a shallow dish of water), or onions and garlic (placed in the bottom of a jar with a little water). These make for great comparative botany studies.


Keep a chart of your child’s efforts to care for these plants. That is, she can fill in a daily activity sheet. Was the plant watered? Add any other activities your child thinks is important to do to take care of these plants and how often those tasks should be done.


You may have heard of creating a battery using a lemon. You can also make a battery with a potato. This experiment takes a number of different items to pull it off and not everyone has access to a voltmeter. But if you do, here is a link to something you might want to try.





Talk about what your child has learned or ask related questions such as “What were we trying to find out by using different soils, or growing the plants in dark or sunlight?”




Use potatoes to make prints. Cut potatoes in half. Your child can carve patterns into the exposed portions of these potato halves or just use the flat portion. Carving a pattern might be best accomplished with a spoon or popsicle stick, as using knives or scissor blades could be too dangerous. Dip these halves into the paint and turn them upside down on a piece of paper or fabric and stamp. Paint can be on a paper plate to make dipping easy. Russet potatoes work best, but little children can easily hold fingering potatoes with the tips cut off for smaller prints.


Thomas Jefferson first served French fries in the United States during his Presidency (1801-1809). Potato chips were invented to appease Cornelius Vanderbilt who complained that his potatoes were sliced too thick. A chef cut the potatoes as thin as possible and deep fried and salted them resulting in the first chips. Mr. Vanderbilt was quite pleased. Or so the story goes….


Potatoes are a source of Vitamin C and Potassium. The Incas, who lived in the area of current day Peru (look up on an atlas), first cultivated potatoes about 8,000 – 5,000 BC. They used potatoes for a variety of medicinal purposes. Explore what these options were ( This site will also explain the history of potatoes in Europe. Lots of interesting facts, including information about the Irish potato famine in the mid-1800’s. Look for books in your library describing how central the potato was and is in people’s diets and its role in history.


Here is a fun site with games and more information presented graphically for the visually oriented child.


If we could eat French fries all of the time, would that be a good choice? Why or why not? Do you like your French fries with ketchup, mayonnaise, Ranch dressing, or some other yummy sauce? I think we have the basis for another survey and graph of results.



Potatoes, yams, sweet potatoes

Stems, leaves, roots

Roasted, boiled, mashed, fried




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