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Lessons in Dirt: Using a Green Thumb for Learning At Home

May 25, 2015
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TEASER Gardening is a great way to get children to connect with nature and learn more about fresh fruits, vegetables and healthy eating. But that’s not all. These gardens also offer children the opportunity to experience hands-on lessons in science, math and language arts.
TITLE Lessons in Dirt: Using a Green Thumb for Learning At Home
TWEETTEXT Lessons in Dirt: Using a Green Thumb for Learning At Home : http://bit.ly/1Fzdkjc

Gardening is a great way to get children to connect with nature and learn more about fresh fruits, vegetables and healthy eating. But that’s not all. These gardens also offer children the opportunity to experience hands-on lessons in science, math and language arts. Spring is the perfect time to start thinking about cultivating one of these living libraries, whether it’s a small herb garden on a windowsill, a community garden, or a larger garden at your child’s school. Gardens can promote your child’s learning, healthy eating habits, and appreciation for nature. Here are some ideas to help get you started:

Start small 

If you want to teach your child about gardening, you don’t need to look any further than your window sill. Herbs are great starter gardens, and can be a good way to teach your child about science. You can talk about the way plants absorb energy from the sun in order to grow, and about the cycle of life that takes place as seeds grow into fragrant herbs. Involving children in the planning and planting process and asking them to water the herbs often can serve as a lesson in responsibility and can help children gain a true appreciation of nature.

You can also incorporate an art activity into your cultivation process by buying small terra cotta pots and asking your child to use his creativity to paint them with his favorite colors or characters. These herb gardens can benefit you as well, as having access to fresh herbs at home can allow you to you save money and waste less food since herbs purchased at the grocery store tend to wilt quickly (and get thrown out) if they are not used in time. Rutgers University has a step-by-step guide to help get you started.

If you want to kick it up a notch, plant a raised garden bed in your backyard

If you have space in your backyard, you may want to consider planting a raised garden bed, as it can provide you and your family with many benefits. Not only will you eventually have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, but you will be providing your child with a rich learning opportunity and quality time spent together. All you will need is your preferred selection of fruits and vegetables, some plywood (or better yet, buy a raised garden kit online that makes construction easy) and lots of potting soil. Work with your child to pick out the fruits, veggies and herbs that you want to plant, but remember to choose those that will flourish in your area. It may seem challenging to construct a raised garden on your own, but your local hardware store representative can help you gather up the items you will need and can guide you through the garden building process. You can even create a themed garden, like a salsa one that includes tomatoes, jalapenos, onions and cilantro or a pizza version with basil, tomatoes and eggplant. Once you have your supplies, you and your child can build and plant the garden, and work on math concepts as you measure and figure out where everything will go. Make sure to orient the bed in a north-south direction for maximum sun exposure and to water your garden often, but don’t overdo it. You may also want to talk about the science behind gardening, and how water plays an important role in the process. You may even take it a step further and discuss the water cycle to help your child value the intricacies processes of life on Earth. NBC Learn has a great video that will allow you to review the concepts with your child if you’re interested. 

Don’t have enough space at home? Plant a garden at your child’s school

School gardens have real academic benefits, and they are a valuable tool teachers can use, says Jeanne McCarty, the Executive Director of REAL School Gardens, an organization that has partnered with 100 schools to build learning gardens and outdoor classrooms. McCarty says that gardens help children better understand concepts such as measuring, computing and estimating length, area, perimeter when given real-world hands-on examples.

“They can also learn about the symmetry, lines, angles, 2D/3D shapes, and the science of the natural world. In addition, gardens can serve as a way to teach language arts, as they provide children with the opportunity to use adjectives, metaphors, and similes, make inferences, and connect information they’ve read to the real world.” McCarty adds.

To start working on your school garden, McCarty, suggests you build a coalition of parents, neighbors, teachers, administrators and school staff to increase support for the project. Not only will they have helpful ideas about what will and won’t work in the space, but building a deep level of buy-in early on in the process will help you keep the garden well-used and well-maintained long term. McCarty recommends that you use a raised garden bed, find a sunny spot where water is handy, keep your planting beds narrow so they are easier to weed, and ensure they are well-labeled, ideally with pictures of the plants so everyone can recognize what does and doesn’t belong. Features such as ponds need lots of regular attention and are best avoided in the beginning. McCarty suggests that you should make sure the garden is useful by involving the teachers in the process as much as possible and engaging maintenance staff to ensure the space doesn’t become an eyesore.

Join a community garden

Community and roof gardens are popping up in countless neighborhoods across the U.S., which means that you and your family probably have access to one near your home. Participation is usually affordable too. Do your research and find one that suits your needs and meet with the coordinator of the plot to get started. Then you can devise a plan of action with your child, and make it a family activity. Community gardens are actively maintained by the gardeners themselves and you will need to visit your plot and water it often, which can translate into a wonderful way to spend quality time with your child. These gardens are not only a great source of fresh produce, but they will also teach your child about decision-making, problem-solving, creativity and patience as you work together to make your plot grow.

The simple act of digging and planting also provides you and your child with a chance to do some exercise together and gain a newfound respect for food production and eating locally. You can even donate your extra produce to the local food bank or to neighbors, which provides your child with a lesson in social responsibility. If you don’t find a garden in your area, and you are interested in starting one, the National Recreation and Parks Association has a helpful guide that help you start the process.

Is your green thumb failing you?

Try signing up for a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) membership or shop at your local farmer’s market instead. CSAs provide people with access to fresh and local produce grown by farmers in their particular region. When you participate in a CSA, you are buying a share of vegetables or fruits from this farmer, and you can pick up your delivery of produce at a designated drop-off location in your area. CSA shares typically include fruits and vegetables and in some cases, eggs, meat and flowers from local farmers. Participation may require an upfront payment for the entire season, as it helps farmers with the planning and purchasing of their crops, and many farms offer payment options. Having a stake in a CSA can help you teach your child about local produce, food distribution, production and large-scale farming. If joining a CSA seems like too big of a commitment, you can always shop at your local farmer’s market, which can still help you save money and enjoy the outdoors with your family. 

Working in a garden can get your entire family to develop a life-long love of learning, and an appreciation of nature, and it will help your child’s imagination, creativity, knowledge and sense of social responsibility flourish.

Sources: Rutger’s University, REAL School Gardens, justfood.org, National Recreation and Parks Association

Lessons in Dirt: Using a Green Thumb for Learning At Home

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