Plant-based knowledge: Six tips on what gardening can teach kids
What children learn in the garden can grow immeasurably as a portal into nature. Take it from a Spokane gardener who has been helping kids gain plant-based knowledge for the past 15 years.
Sue Malm, WSU gardener since 2006, heads the youth committee of the program. She has visited many school gardens, science fairs, and classrooms and received tips on how to get children excited about gardening.
And she learned a lot between the sheets. Her own childhood gardening experiences weren’t that positive. “It was going outside and weeding in the scorching sun,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is boring and no fun at all.’ ”
But since she started working in the garden at the age of 30, “I’ve seen how much fun it is for the children. It’s just wonderful that we’ve evolved to teach children that gardening is fun. It’s not just a chore. “
So how do families enjoy it? Go slowly and don’t expect perfection, said Malm. Adults should plan to show children how to use gardening tools and work the soil with them. Remember younger children have short attention spans, she said.
“So you start with something that sprouts quickly, like a radish,” said Malm. “Gardening doesn’t bring instant gratification, but growing a radish is as close as possible. You start to see that you are paying off for what you did. “
Children usually also love to be busy growing strawberries because of the fruits.
“If you involve them in gardening activities that allow them to actually dig into the ground, they’ll enjoy it – if you’re not really strict,” such as insisting on straight rows, she said.
“But when you say, ‘We have to work some fertilizer or compost into the ground, so let’s put on a pair of gloves and here’s a garden tool,’ that’s fun.”
Children digging in the ground get a sense of discovery. They often discover worms and beetles that fascinate them. Accept that, she said. Perhaps one parent has to end the series.
“There’s something about kids, and that natural affinity for insects and worms, that unless an adult yells, ‘Oh no, don’t touch it,’ the child just sees this fascinating little creature,” she said. “Honestly, gardening helps them appreciate all living things, be they plants, insects or worms.”
Here are other lessons from the garden:
Associating plants in the ground with meals. Children are beginning to understand that harvested plants are tied to what is in the grocery store and with meals. Children who are picky about eating vegetables are more likely to eat what helped them grow. When this carries over to foods that benefit the family, it can be empowering.
Connections to nature. “Gardening is a hands-on experience, and this type of activity is so important now that so much of what kids do is linked to virtual experiences,” added Malm. The proximity to the earth and plants appeals to all of the senses.
• Vision: You absorb all the colors of the natural world and green itself has a calming effect. Children are particularly drawn to bright flowers, Malm said.
• Touch: She said that children are drawn to the many textures found in plants and vegetables.
• Smell and taste: With herbs in particular, “you immediately recognize that something that smells good is fascinating,” she says. “I have watched children in the school garden how they pinch a piece of herb, rub it in their hand and run to friends to say, ‘Smells that.’ ”
• Hearing: The plants do not speak, but children in the garden can hear bees buzzing and birds chirping. “Children really have a connection with it, so they can have that kind of experience in the garden.”
Math and reading skills. When advising many of the Montessori students at Spokane Area Schools on planning gardens, the children map them on graph paper to determine the distance between plants and measure the area they have.
Children need to read the back of the seed packets for more information about planting instructions and plant care. You can write in a journal with planting dates, gardening activities, and results.
Patience and responsibility. Although Malm mentions short attention spans, gardening offers lessons in patience. “When you sow a seed, you have to wait for the seed to sprout. They also get a sense of responsibility because they have to take care of it. “
Eliminating these responsibilities can be a lesson. “If you let this little seedling go for a few days without watering and then drink it and it’s dead, that’s a big consequence.
“But you have to admit that this is a pretty straightforward way of knowing the cause and effect of consequences. A small dead seedling isn’t the end of the world, but this lesson is important. “
Solve problems. “In the garden, things don’t always go the way you imagine,” said Malm. “There are disappointments and pest invasions.”
Once she went to a school garden to plan activities a day in advance when she would be there with the students. The cabbage was covered with aphids.
“My first instinct as a gardener was to just take the hose and hose them all down so we could have this picture-perfect cabbage for kids to look at. Then I thought, wait a minute, let the kids see insects invading their plants. “
The next day she told them about the aphids and handed out magnifying glasses. Children were fascinated. “We talked about the aphids, what they do to the plant and why we don’t like them on the plant, so how can we get rid of them? There is the solution to the problem. “
They talked about ladybugs and moved a few to the cabbages, which were another source of awe, she said. “Something like a monster movie where something big devours little creatures.” Ladybugs weren’t in abundance, so the group decided to hose down the aphids for several days in another lesson: Diligence.
Get to know life cycles. Children observe annual plants die off at the end of the growing season, but can help other plants, Malm said. You and a child can put them on a compost heap, and if they decompose, they will provide nutrients to the plants for the next year. Have the children collect seeds from them to continue the life of a plant.
For perennials, talk to kids about the fact that the top of the plant will die off over winter so you can’t see it, but the roots underground are still alive. “They will deliver new shoots next spring – these are the cycles that are involved in nature.”
For more information, see the WSU Master Gardener Program website at mastergardener.wsu.edu. Libraries offer books for children and gardening. Malm likes “Roots, Shoots, Buckets and Boots” by Sharon Lovejoy; “Sunflower Houses”, also from Lovejoy; and “Put it on. Eat It, ”by Linda Larson.