Everyday Teaching: Nature as classroom

Have your children tend their own summer gardens.

Teaching children at home.

Kids love playing in dirt. To fulfill that passion, try creating a Child’s Own Summer Garden. By adopting a wild pitch in the yard or neighborhood, a child can learn vegetable and flower-scaping. The size of the garden can be as small as a flowerpot or as large as a raised bed.

According to Emily Armstrong, education director at Island Grown Schools, the first step is to ask children what they love to eat. If they like pizza, they will need tomatoes. Second, she advises, instruct kids to map out their garden on a piece of graph paper before actually heading outdoors to plant. Using potting soil mixed with fishmeal or blood meal, she advises, they can grow crops right from seed this time of year. Motivating kids to sample different foods, parents can cultivate their children’s taste buds through nature. By keeping a journal of drawings, kids can illustrate and describe their evolving garden.

Armstrong recommends planting vegetables and flowers that are simple. Ground cherries can be tucked into the soil now that the earth is warm. Later kids have a treasure hunt to find the husks as they fall to the ground, split open, and spill their fruit. Sunflowers planted in a circle rise up to create an outdoor nook for children to hide. Measuring plants is another good way to inspire some competition. Whose sunflower grows tallest? Save these seeds in the fall for future plantings. A tower garden can support morning glories or tomatoes. Strawberries are vibrant in a terra cotta pot. These little gardens are small enough to grow on a deck. Try growing peapods with some tendril supports — wait for the white flowers, then eat them right off the stem.

Summer gardens can become a growing classroom for all children. Potting soil combined with some fishmeal provide a fertile soil with enough drainage for basil, cilantro, rosemary, dill, and chives. Many kids have not tasted such herbs when they are freshly picked. Not only are they flavorful, but they offer texture, fragrance, and shapes to identify in the wild. Cherry tomatoes are perfect for the youngest kids, since they ripen early and are fun to find and devour.

For cat lovers, try growing your own catnip. When it is eight to 10 inches long, cut it into bundles and hang to dry. Within a month, it will be dry enough to stuff into toys, providing hours of impish fun. Try a bug scavenger hunt for slugs, beetles, aphids, and worms. Finding butterflies is an added bonus.

Island Grown Initiative also recommends teaching children about pollination and the importance of flowers in attracting bees and butterflies. By planting brightly colored flowers like zinnias, pansies, and asters, kids can observe the importance of moths, beetles, and even flies in pollinating our food.

On rainy days, children can design their garden labels. Using a popsicle stick to print out names of the plants or painting rocks to lay in the soil, they can decorate their patch. Last, Armstrong advises, “ensure kids have garden tools near the door, like a jar with scissors for pruning, a small shovel, a watering can, a measuring tape, and gloves for weeding.”

Planting a garden is only the first step. Consistent nurturing and watering are vital. Tending a garden, no matter how small, also motivates responsibility and reliability, Armstrong says. In this time of no school and few camps, backyard nature provides comfort. Fortunately, we live in a place surrounded by bounty and beauty. By adding a little garden to our children’s lives, they can realize their own part in healthy eating and well-being.