The familiar nursery rhyme, “Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?” has captured the hearts of children for generations. Youngsters continue to be fascinated by digging, planting, and putting their hands in dirt. Instead of responding negatively, give them a reason to get dirty and make their own discoveries by using the natural environment as a teaching tool. Incorporate gardening as part of the child care curriculum as well as a home-based learning experience. Lessons learned early in life stay with children as they grow.
Values of Gardening
Educators and child psychologists have long recommended gardening as a teaching tool. In the early 1900’s Maria Montessori believed children could learn lessons in life by practical experience - for example, by making a garden (Brewer, 2001). Montessori’s theories of educating the young child are now common in most U.S. communities.
Through the studies of plants, children become aware of how people depend on plant life as the source of food, clothing, and shelter, as well as the aesthetic beauty inherent in both indoor and outdoor surroundings. However, children can also learn that many plants, such as noxious weeds and poisonous plants, may be harmful. Others may be invasive or a nuisance to gardening.
In addition to viewing gardening as a learning experience, growing plants and working the soil is just plain fun! If a child’s first gardening experiences reap success, chances are that their “green thumb” and enthusiasm will continue throughout life.
How to Make a Garden
There’s more than one way to make a child-size garden. For an in-ground garden, use a garden tiller to work up the soil. Choose a well-drained location in full sun. Make sure the soil is dry or you’ll have large clods that are difficult to break up later. After tilling several times, use a rake to remove any stones or foreign objects.
Another option is a raised garden. Using string and stakes, plot out the garden area in a sunny location away from trees. Cover this area with roughly 10 layers of newspapers; avoid paper with colored ink. Along the edges of your marked off area, place eight-foot building timbers, available from a nursery or local building supply company. For an eight-foot square area, you will need 12 timbers for building a garden three timbers deep.
After the frame is complete, fill with a mixture of sand, soil, peat moss, and compost. If you live in an area where aged sawdust or cottonseed hulls are available, add this to the soil. Hopefully red worms, known as night crawlers, will find a path to your garden. These friendly creatures aerate the soil by burrowing tunnels in the earth. Teach children how helpful insects, such as bees, ladybugs and worms help keep the environment in balance.
This is a good time for children to mix the components with small spades or shovels. Mark off rows or sections and allow children to plant vegetable and flower seeds. Select seeds that germinate quickly and are this year’s stock, as old seeds may not sprout. If using seeds from a package, place the envelope on a stick and insert where the seeds are planted to indicate the plants that will develop in each section. Purchasing small transplants such as tomatoes, lettuce, and cabbage is another way to see fast results and is recommended by many gardeners. Guide children to water their garden regularly.
Remember that various factors determine the success of gardening, such as too much rain, or too little, sunny warm weather, or cloudy and cold; check for the last frost date in your region before planting, although early spring vegetable transplants, such as onion sets, cabbage, spinach, and English peas can stand cool nights. Each seed package contains valuable information on planting depth, the correct season to plant and the number of growing days before you will be able to harvest.
Burton White, a noted educator for young children said, “If children learn best through play, make all their work their play.” The following gardening activities make learning “play.”
• Individual journal
Keeping a garden journal teaches children to think like scientists. Provide each child with a small journal for drawing and taking notes. Write the date the seeds were planted; note the appearance of first leaves, the number of seeds planted, the number that sprouted and if fruits produced. Have them draw a picture of each growth stage (Bennett & Bennett, 1993).
• Shovel or spade
Bulbs are self-contained seeds and the plant’s food storage containers. In spring, children can plant fall-blooming bulbs. Dig a hole to a depth 2 1/2 times the diameter of the bulb. Place the bulb root side down in the hole. Add fertilizer and water well. Mark the calendar as to when you expect the bulb to show green shoots (Bennett & Bennett, 1993).
Beans are fun and quick to grow. These characteristics make them one of the mainstays of a child’s garden. To make a beanstalk house you will need:
• Eight 5-foot stakes
• Four 3-foot stakes
• Pole bean seeds
Draw a four-foot circle in the soil. Make a teepee-like frame with the eight-foot stakes and push the bottom ends into the circle indention. Securely tie the stakes together at the top. Tie the three-foot stakes around the bottom of the taller stakes. Leave an opening for the children to crawl inside. Plant two or three bean seeds around each stake and water them regularly. As the seedlings grow, encourage the runners to climb the strings. In about a month, the teepee will be covered with vines and beans. This makes a great retreat to read a book or simply as a secret hideaway (Bennett & Bennett, 1993).
Black Gold (Garden Compost)
Composting is the age-old method of returning back to the earth gardening materials that are removed. Making your own dirt teaches children the art of conservation.
• Wooden box
• Large, heavy-duty plastic trash bags
• Vegetable and fruit scraps
• Small shovel
Place a small wooden box inside a plastic bag. Use another bag as a liner inside the box. Punch several holes through both bags to insure proper ventilation. Place your new composter in full sun and add several inches of soil to the bottom. Throw in small peelings from vegetables and fruits (the smaller the peelings, the faster they will break down), but be careful to not add dairy products or animal protein (bones, chicken, etc), which tend to attract vermin. Add another layer of soil. Use the shovel to turn the compost several times each week. This process will aerate the soil, which allows the compost to break down and if aerated properly, there will be no smell as materials biodegrade. Check the moisture level of your compost – it should be slightly damp, like a wrung out sponge, but not sopping wet or completely dry. In about a month, your child will have handfuls of “black gold” to enrich a flower or vegetable garden (Bennett & Bennett, 1993).
• Grass seeds
Sow grass seeds on a moist sponge. Place the sponge on a plate (add a small amount of water to keep it slightly moist) in a sunny window. Add water-soluble fertilizer as you water your “Grass Garden.” In a few days, tiny green shoots of grass will appear.
• Carrot tops
• Pot of moist soil mix
Remove approximately 1/2 inch of the tops of several carrots (including the greens and a small section of the orange) and place in a pot filled with potting mix. Place in a sunny window and keep it moist, but not wet. Fern-like leaves will soon appear.
• Egg shells broken in halves
• Potting soil
• Grass seeds
When cooking eggs, crack them so you have two well-formed halves. Rinse out the shells and draw a mouth, nose, and eyes on each half. Fill with potting soil and drop a few grass seeds in each half. Place in a sunny window, placed inside the open egg carton for support. As the grass seed sprouts, the growth appears to be hair above the eggshell face.
Make a Wormery:
• Glass gallon jar
• Leaf mold
• Grass seed
• Red worms
Place worms in the jar, adding layers of soil, leaf mold, and sand. Add a little water after each layer. Sprinkle grass seeds on top. Cover the jar with black cloth or paper for a week to encourage the worms to tunnel near the sides. Feed twice a week with bits of leafy vegetables, cornmeal, or oats.
Growing plants appeals not only to kids, but to teachers and parents, as well. Begin with simple techniques and easy varieties of flowers and vegetables. Offer the children praise for their involvement and participation. Allow their curiosity and wonder to take root naturally. Soon you’ll be growing gardeners who will make our world a better place.
Carolyn Ross Tomlin has taught kindergarten and early childhood education at Union University in Jackson, TN. She
contributes to numerous educational publications.
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