The Washington State University Spokane County Master Gardeners involved in our Youth Program have created seven core gardening lessons geared toward children in Kindergarten through 6th grade. These lessons were designed to be presented to the Spokane Public Schools after-school child care program called Express, but they have also been presented at a variety of other locations such as public and private school classrooms, church groups, scout troops, and boys’ and girls’ clubs. Over the past 11 years, we have given these presentations to over 10,000 children.
Each “Garden Lesson in a Box” consists of a syllabus, list of materials, background resource information, and supplies needed for the presentation, all contained within a portable bin which can be easily transported to the presentation site. The seven lessons with a brief description of each, are:
- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Garden Creatures: Using pictures and life cycle models to start, children are introduced to nine different garden creatures (Colorado potato beetles, banana slugs, ground beetles, earwigs, spiders, aphids, praying mantis, ladybird beetles, and pillbugs/sowbugs) and their significance in the garden. The children then observe and interact with live specimens. For safety reasons, the children are allowed to handle only the pillbugs/sowbugs which they have to hunt for in open containers of compost. The children color drawings of the creatures and also plant flower seeds in newspaper pots of soil to take home.
- Three Sisters: The children act out the Native American story of the three sisters and learn the importance of corn, beans, and squash to the Native Americans and the principles of companion planting. The children sow seeds of these three vegetables to take home and also color and label pictures of them.
- Soil: Children learn the function of plant roots, observe the different components of soil, and learn the value of compost as a soil amendment. They hunt for living creatures in partially-decomposed compost and learn the function of each in the decomposition process. The children color pictures of compost creatures and sow vegetable seeds to take home. Singing along to the song ‘Dirt Made My Lunch’ by the Banana Slug String Band is a fun part of this lesson.
- Pollination: Using large felt diagrams of flowers, the children learn the flower parts and their functions, and the role that pollinators play in seed production and food produc
tion for humans. They observe real beehive components and learn how visits to flowers benefit bees. They sow flower seeds to take home and also color pictures of flowers.
- The Seed: Using pictures and large models of bean seeds, the children learn the major parts of a seed which they then identify by dissecting lima beans. They learn the conditions that seeds need to sprout, and they observe the process of seed germination in pre-planted demonstration materials. The children create “Personality Pots’ where they sow seeds of rye or radishes in cups of soil on which they have drawn faces (as the seedlings grow, they create “hair” for the face).
- Vegetable Garden: We read the book Tops and Bottoms by Janet Stevens, a Common Core text exemplar and funny story about the edible parts of plants. Then the children are shown real vegetables and identify which parts are eaten by humans. Using a 4’x4’ square of brown felt as a garden plot and vegetables made from felt, the children lay out a vegetable garden, learning about spacing, sun exposure, succession planting, and vertical gardening. The children sow seeds of vegetables to grow at home and draw pictures of their dream vegetable garden. We also sing along to two songs by the Banana Slug String Band, ‘Sun, Soil, Water, and Air’ and ‘Give Plants a Chance.’
- Trees: The children act out a fable about deciduous and evergreen trees and learn about the value of trees for humans. They examine cross-sections of tree trunks, identifying the major parts, and estimating tree age. They make crayon rubbings of different leaves, examine various tree seeds, and plant maple seeds to take home.
Our seven garden lessons cover a variety of garden topics, but in each one, children sow seeds in pots that they take home. We feel that growing a plant from seed and caring for that plant is a crucial experience for children, allowing them both to witness the wonder of nature and to experience the responsibility of nurturing a living plant.
When we first decided to develop these garden lessons, we wanted to create affordable, fun activities that children would like doing. The homemade materials (felt boards and figures, felt vegetables, felt flower diagrams, seed models made from clay) were not difficult to design and make and were constructed by Master Gardeners with no crafting experience. These materials are intriguing to children who love handling them, thus providing a tactile experience which adds to their learning. Including songs to sing and stories to act out involves the children on an active level which helps to hold their interest and makes the lessons very enjoyable.
Purchased durable supplies include plastic bins (about $15 each), mesh insect cages (about $10 each), ladybird beetle and praying mantis life cycle models (about $6 each), and a portable CD player (about $20). Supplies that need to be regularly replenished include seeds, potting soil, zipper-lock plastic bags, styrofoam cups for the ‘Personality Pots,’ live ladybird beetles (about $6), and praying mantis egg sacs (about $10). Live garden creatures other than ladybird beetles are collected by Master Gardeners from their own gardens and compost piles. Pots for children to sow seeds in are made from old newspapers by the Master Gardeners. Handouts and pictures to color are easily found on the Internet and printed out.
Having a self-contained lesson enables a Master Gardener to present a lesson with a minimum of preparation. These lessons can also be modified by the person doing the presentation. Some presenters like to add more information and some omit certain activities that they are not comfortable with (such as singing a song). Although the lessons were originally designed for children in grades K-6, they can be, and have been, modified for younger and older children as well. The presentations are usually 45-60 minutes in length but can be shortened or lengthened depending on the age and number of the children participating.
Children look forward to our presentations and enjoy the time they spend with us. We regularly receive charming thank-you notes from the children which include comments such as these: “I like how you taught us. I liked when we did the play. The bugs were cool.” “I love the fun active games. I loved learning about pollen and good and bad bugs.” “I like the song you taught us too!” “You showed us how plants grow.”
We have a lot of fun with the children in these presentations, and especially enjoy seeing their delight at discovering the joys of gardening.
Children and Ladybugs For further information, please contact Tim Kohlhauff at firstname.lastname@example.org