The growing seasons of spring and summer are joyous events for nature lovers. Those who live with the darkness and snow of winter are thrilled with each new plant popping up, bird song symphonies and the long, light-filled days. The regenerative energy of spring is obvious among children; just ask any teacher about the antsy “hum” of a classroom filled with children in May.
One of the gifts of childhood is an eager and natural curiosity of the young learner’s mind. The study of plants is one of the most interesting and accessible activities to engage learners of all ages. Directing the energy of curiosity to building a basic foundation of plant knowledge would benefit individuals as well as our overall culture. Understanding the many functions of plants in our day-to-day lives teaches thinking skills, self-reliance, appreciation and gratitude. I think our communities would benefit tremendously if we invested in thinking, independence, wonder and gratitude.
Studying plants is a life-long learning adventure. So this spring and summer why not introduce plants to the young ones in your life? Listed below are 3 simple ways to the plant the seed of interest, wonder and appreciation for plants children of all ages..
In Robert Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, he presents an abundance of information about how we have scared and electronically entertained our children away from nature. Start with your backyard or a nearby park and do an observational inventory. This activity will develop strong observational skills, pattern recognition and attention to detail (important skills for math and science learning).
o Ask your learners to identify the number of plants that look different from each other (pattern recognition). You may be surprised when plants like trees and grass are ignored!
o Next, describe what a pattern is and look for patterns within the arrangement of plants. Are there groups of the same or similar plants grouped together? Do some plants only appear in the shade?
o Avoid using the word “weed”. This is a cultural term that is sadly given to some of the most beneficial plants growing in our surroundings. Don't feel compelled to identify each and every plant; in fact, offer your learners the opportunity to "name" a plant on their own. Ask them why they chose the name.
o If possible, visit an unmaintained space like an overgrown field, a native forest or an abandoned lot to do another observational inventory. Compare the inventories and look for similarities and differences.
o Follow the inquiries and paths of your learners. Did they watch an ant climb into a flower? Did they sneeze while walking through some high grass? Did they ask about markings on a plant?
Invite your learners to study, in detail, one or two plants. Let the learners select their plants and help them with the correct species identification (Note: proper identification is important for later exploration activities.)
o Libraries have regional plant field books that can help with identification. If unsure of the plant’s ID, steer your learner in the direction of a plant that you can clearly identify like a dandelion, an oak tree or a culinary herb.
o Create a plant journal or invest in an inexpensive sketchbook. One of the best ways for learners of any age to learn about a plant is to draw it in detail. Ask learners to sit with their selected plants and draw pictures with as much detail as possible. Colored pencils are wonderful for this kind of activity. This activity helps with practicing focus and attention to detail.
o Can you and your learners identify the parts of plants? Again, libraries likely have children’s books that can assist with this introduction to botany. If you decide to investigate plant study from a more scientific perspective with older children, one of the best books to invest in is Botany in a Day by Thomas J. Elpel. Another great resource is The Visual Dictionary of Plants from the Eyewitness series.
o Plants that share similar characteristics are grouped into families and this method of pattern recognition is far more beneficial to the learner than individual plant identification. Elpel’s book has an excellent set of online articles on recognizing plant families. Recognizing and understanding patterns is a key skill to developing mathematical aptitude.
o Do you have a budding herbalist in your life? Treat her to a subscription of Herbal Roots Zine a publication designed for all learners interested in the magic of herbs and spices.
Common herbs often have fascinating histories including culinary, medicinal and cosmetic uses. After all, humans have used them for at least five thousand of years! They are easy to grow either in the garden beds or in containers. Starting a small herb garden with your learners is one of the best ways to introduce the study of plants. A basic culinary herb garden that includes perennials like rosemary, thyme, chives, oregano, lemon balm, and peppermint and annuals like basil, cilantro and dill offers lots of diversity in plant structure, scents, taste and uses. Introduce tea-time to your learners: pluck enough sprigs or leaves from an herb, make a tea and sip some tea in the garden.
Herbs provide an abundance of learning and tasting opportunities that are easily accessible to learners. They offer a wide range of leaf and flower types to study and their scents and flavors can be enjoyed directly or through teas and food. For less than $20 you can buy 4-5 herb starts and plant them in a sunny location in your yard or in pots. Some basic information on growing herbs with children is located at the Herbal Academy's Herb Gardening With Children.
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