What Do Plants Need to Live?

Cows by hencio

People like you and I need a few things to live — we need healthy food, we need water, and we need air. Plants, though, are a little different than you and me. They need food and water, but they also need sunlight to live. Plants use sunlight as a way to make energy to grow.

Plants and animals, including people like you and me, breathe in air. But plants use a different part of the air than you or I do. We breathe in a part of the air called oxygen. We use the oxygen that we breathe in the air to feed the blood in our bodies. Plants use a different part of the air, a gas called carbon dioxide. We breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. Plants do just the opposite — plants breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. So the oxgyen you’re breathing now probably came from a plant. Thanks, plants!

Plants also get food from the soil. To live, they need a certain chemical that you can find in the soil. This chemical is called nitrogen. You have nitrogen in your body, too, but your body can’t use it. So when you get nitrogen in your body, your body gets rid of it. How does it do this? It leaves your body through pee and poo. All the stuff in pee and poo is stuff that your body can’t use. That’s why pee and poo is sometimes called “waste” — because it’s something leftover that you can’t use.

But because pee and poo are full of nitrogen, plants love it! If you’re a tree and a dog pees on you, are you happy or sad? You’re happy, because that pee is full of nitrogen that you can use to eat. The same is true with poo. In fact, farmers take poo from their cows and spread it across their fields to make the plants in their fields grow better. This is called “fertilization” — the farmer is using cow poo to make it easier for plants to grow in the field.

37 thoughts on “What Do Plants Need to Live?

  1. Fran Ludwig

    Please correct your inaccuracies:
    Plants respire (breathe) the same way as animals do, they take in oxygen (to release their food energy) and give off carbon dioxide (as the food is “burned” ).

    Plants do not get food from the soil (even though fertilizer is mistakenly called “plant food”). They get nutrients such as nitrogen from the soil and use these to make their own food through the process of photosynthesis. This is the process where plants take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen.

    As a science teacher, I spend a lot of time trying to get kids to use words correctly.

    Fran Ludwig
    K-5 Science Coordinator
    Lexington (MA) Public Schools

  2. admin

    Yo Fran, thanks for weighing in with the straight poop, but I have to say, the way you’re approaching this suggests to me that you’re the kind of teacher that made me hate science when I was in elementary school.

    This post was written for a five-year-old. Obviously it glosses some stuff over. Do you use words like “photosynthesis” with kindergardeners?

  3. jeffrey

    In fact, Fran, there are lots of plants (like algae) that don’t need soil, and hundreds of species of plants that don’t do photosynthesis (they are parasites of photosynthetic plants). So if you really want to get technical, and I know you do, your explanation isn’t totally accurate either.

  4. Colleen

    Fran, thanks for adding your comments – they were quite helpful. Yes, actually, current educational theory says you should be using words like photosynthesis with 5-year-olds; there’s no reason to “dumb down” science for kids if it involves explaining things inaccurately such that they’ll have to unlearn it later. Science is such a fascinating subject, and I feel sorry for anyone who was turned off to science as a kid.

  5. admin

    There is a huge difference between dumbing it down and using language that’s appropriate for their age. If they can’t understand what you’re talking about in the first place, they’re never going to learn it.

  6. ahmadnasrullah

    hi iam 13 years old kid i have read this this was the best teacher and your the best iam from afghanistan but ilive in swedan and do not know very much swedish so search in the internet that was the best i like it keep it on
    thanks teacher.

  7. Steven

    Thanks for the information and for correcting some of it. I would like to learn more about the planet i live on ^^

  8. Rithubhai

    I am doing my AP Biology homework and i was required to find out what plants use as food. I am aware that they use Carbon Dioxide for food but soil was something that caught me. Do plants really use nitrogen as food? How does it help them? Can anyone be more clear and go in depth about this? Thanks!

  9. jeffrey Post author

    Hey there,

    I know that some college teachers have a problem with students using Wikipedia for citations, but Wikipedia is often helpful to get quick answers to questions like this. Here’s the part of the Wikipedia article on plants that goes into detail about what plants need and why:


    (The short answer is that most plants require nutrients from the soil, including the elements nitrogen and phosphorous.)

  10. lynn mutharia

    i think is true that plant need to stae i live couse if the plan dont stay i live we shall all dye couse its is veery inporntant sometimes we live it the plants couse its veery inprntant so people let me idvise you dont cat your plant down
    its very inporntant if you dont stay with plant they plant they will all die with hunger and very home we shall not stay witout palnts

  11. Isabel

    I was wondering for a science homework, how do we know plants respire? How do we test that they do? I have asked family members and friends, but none of them know how we would confirm they do. Please help!

  12. Kelly

    Hi,i am workin on a science work aqnd tryin to find out what is in the water that makes it possible for some plants to live in it.Can someone please help me??

  13. Kelly

    Hi, i am workin on a science homework and tryin to know what is in the water that makes it possible for some plants to live in it.Can someone please help me????

  14. Robin

    Kelly, plants make a chemical reaction powered by sunlight. they take in carbon dioxide from air and react it with water from the ground. The reaction changes them to oxygen and hydrocarbons which are the food we eat. We then do the opposite reaction to get our energy (“sunlight”) out from the food!

  15. amanda

    this helps for my science project it is killing me because there are a lot of websites to look up and its really hard thanks for this it really helped!!!!! love amanda! ;-)

  16. SuperScientist

    You need to explain what the different nutrients they need are and what they do. I’m 13 and for my homework we need to find out at least four things that plants need to survive that isn’t carbon dioxide, water or light. This has sort of helped a bit, but it could be expanded for a wider range of audiences, not just 5 year olds. Otherwise it’s great! Thanks.

  17. SuperScientist

    And you need to say what nitrogen does otherwise it’s a tad confusing. My six year old sister read it too and she won’t stop asking me what nitrogen does, thing is I don’t know either.

  18. philippe

    I’m 10 and i have a online school i started 2day. i needed to do science studies, i looked up how do plants live and i found this, its a great, thanks :)

  19. Kat

    for a science teacher, Fran u havent done your homework very well. Plants take in Carbon Dioxide and produce oxygen, contrary to what you were saying. this is comming from a 17 year old who got a C in my GCSE science

  20. Meg

    Primary school kids can cope with a lot more than we give them credit for. If this article includes words like “nitrogen”, “carbon dioxide” and “fertilizer”, I see no reason why it shouldn’t include words like “nutrients” and “respire”. In the UK kids as young as 6 happily understand the word “photosynthesis” (even if they don’t learn to spell it until later!). As a science teacher I find that misconceptions about science are the single most powerful reason that some scientific topics are found impossible by kids when they get older. Models are useful, but unlearning incorrect models is harder than building on partial ones. The concept that plants get food from the soil is hard to shake once it’s been learnt…

  21. axeman3

    Thanks. I am doing a science experiment to see if a plant can produce enough oxygen for a candle to keep moving and this site gave a little more info on what I should try. But, I need a littke more info but.

  22. Jon

    Fran, I agree with your comment about Ludwig and his idea that bashing kids with vocabulary before knowing the concept is a good point. To take it further, plants don’t make oxygen either. Stars did. So maybe we should contact this writer and set him straight. Or we could teach kids about stellar evolution in 1st grade to “get it right”.

    1. jeffrey Post author

      Well, you can trace the creation of a lot of planetary matter to stars, but not all. But even though the ultimate source of elements may be a star, plants do use light and carbon dioxide and release oxygen as a byproduct of photosynthesis, a process that continues daily here on Earth.

  23. Tanner harris

    this website does not give what photosynthesis is and what plants need to survive Yes we all know what plants need like water sun carbon dioxide but what about photosynthesis and all the other stuff

  24. Martha Grajeda

    I appreciate the way you explain things to little kids. I think it is very important we come to the children’s level. Of course you do not approach the same topic in the same way for different grades. The parts of a cell are not taught the same way for a 4th grader, a 6th grader, or an 8th grader.

    Thank you! :)

    1. jeffrey Post author

      Thanks for your feedback, Martha. You’re right, we definitely don’t explain things in a way that would work for any age group. When we started this site we aimed for explanations that would work for our Principal Investigator, Celeste, and back then she was four years old. Today she’s almost 12! Maybe soon she’ll be able to post her own writings to the site.


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