By Kaye Moomaw
Photos by LaShonda Delivuk
In this age of screens and 24-hour-a-day availability, we all need ways to unhook from electronics. Going outside and participating in the natural world improves both your physical and mental health. The same is true for children.
Bedford Hills Elementary School in Lynchburg has been using their school garden since 2008 to help young students explore nature while learning at the same time. “The garden functions as an outdoor classroom for the school and we have great, creative teachers who use it in all different ways,” says Kris Lloyd, who founded the Roots and Shoots Garden when her children were students at the school.
As a member of the Hill City Master Gardeners, Hillside Garden Club and Blue Ridge Conservation Coalition, Lloyd is committed to enriching our local gardening community—starting with our youngest members. “The garden makes them so curious—even if we are simply weeding they look at the roots, worms and insects. They ask the best questions!” she says.
Now that temperatures are warmer and days are longer, you can turn your home garden into a classroom for your children or grandchildren. You don’t need any strict curriculum—just go outside and simply see what’s happening around you. Below are a few ideas to get you started:
Plant some flowers, herbs or vegetables together. Your garden doesn’t have to be big; one cherry tomato plant that a child tends to all by himself has huge rewards. Watching the vines grow, flower and then seeing baby fruit ripen to red is the beginning of a love of growing things. Even a child who has never liked tomatoes will usually try one, and most often exclaim it is the “best tomato ever” when they have grown it. Squash is satisfying for kids to grow.
It has big flowers, big leaves and makes a satisfying “pop” when you pick it! Watermelon and pumpkins will probably come to mind if you really get excited about growing as a family. They are a bit more complicated—however, your student may enjoy measuring the vine as it crawls across the yard.
Practice math skills by having your child count how many tomatoes, green beans or zinnias they pick. An older child can keep a running total and practice addition skills. They can estimate what they think their total yield off one plant will be. Then, see if their prediction was correct. All of these abstract math and science skills in books come to life when your young gardener is at work.
Use field guides, binoculars or a hand lens to encourage observation of plants and animal life.
Teach your children at a young age that not all bugs are “bad.” A few good tools can show you what eggs, pupae, caterpillar and moth of the same insect look like over the course of the garden season. These observations they make deepen a child’s understanding of the natural world and teach them about different life cycles. In the Roots and Shoots Garden, a former father of some students donated bird boxes. Today, the purple martins and bluebirds are enjoyed and observed by everyone. “Students have also loved tracking the bluebird trail boxes with the bluebirds and tree swallows. That activity leads to great discussion of habitat and what it is about our schoolyard habitat that birds like so much,” says Lloyd.
Encourage your child to keep a nature journal with a picture of a bird nest and/or bird. Record how many eggs are in the nest.
Look up and see how many days the mother bird has to take care of the babies until they are fledglings. Watch for the day they fly away. Did they all make it? There are great STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills at work here as well as spelling and composition.
Find ways to tell the history of your crops. You can check out some Native American history books from the library and teach your children about the three sisters—beans, corn and squash. Or, plant a garden that includes some of your family favorites and make recipes from your grandmother. I have some Norwegian heritage, and my grandmother was a mid-westerner. I could plant rhubarb and make her jelly and sweet rolls as a way to showcase my family heritage. If you are Irish you could talk about the Great Potato famine. The possibilities are endless to connect your garden, nature and the stories we share.
Use plants or produce for some “hands-on” activities. Make a special “living” fort out of sunflowers lashed together at the top. Or, construct a green bean teepee: using tomato sticks or dowels, plant runner beans so they will climb up the sticks entwining them until covered. They can rule over their own green kingdom that they help take care of. A personal garden spot made for a child invites relaxation and discovery.
Research how to plant according to the lunar cycles.
This is a great project for a junior high student. You can plant the various crops at just the right time for good seed germination and harvesting. This information is available in the Farmers’ Almanac. Now, you’re discussing astronomy and probably looking at constellations together.
With any of the above activities, try to let the child lead the conversation when something has made them curious. Ask questions that further the development of their use of the scientific method by letting them propose the answer. Then work together to research if they are correct. You will also have to work with younger children on how to “be gentle” when exploring nature, especially with a bird’s nest.
You don’t have to give your child a quiz at the end of the day, when your time in the garden is over. Know that by introducing your child to the world of gardening, you are making an impact on their life that will carry on into adulthood.
“If you grow lettuce and peas and radishes to make a salad as a second grader, or help feed the worms in the worm bin, or watch the caterpillar go through its life cycle in your classroom, you will be more engaged with the natural world as an adult,” says Lloyd.
“I think there is lots of joy in that for many adults.”