6 Lessons For Teaching Kids Gardening

Teach kids how to grow a green vocabulary and mind-set, whether it's at home, at school, or in a community garden.

May 17, 2017
kids planting tree

Adapted from The Power of a Plant

School gardens and green classrooms are ideal ecosystems for growing your students' academic vocabulary and thinking skills.

Related: Mr. Ritz's Favorite Vegetables To Grow With Children (Of All Ages)

Here are some key terms, concepts, big ideas, and little nuggets to introduce and build on across grade levels. They're equally applicable in classrooms, in community gardening programs, or at home.

child studying plant
1/6 Rawpixel/Getty Images
Dirt versus soil

"What's the difference between dirt and soil?" That question stumps many children at first, but my veteran gardeners know the difference: "Dirt is what's behind your ears. Soil is what we plant in." Soil is a living thing. It's a community. Dirt is a liability. Soil is the greatest asset in the world; it provides a medium to grow.

Expect your new gardeners to be surprised to learn that soil is a living, breathing material. Challenge their assumption that it's "just dirt" by having them investigate healthy soil using all their senses. Using an inexpensive handheld magnifying glass, they can get a close-up look at soil samples. Teach them to roll a pinch of soil between thumb and fingers to see if it forms a ball—a way to check for clay content. What do they notice when they close their eyes and smell a handful of soil? Their observations lead naturally to descriptive writing activities.

More: 6 Strategies for Urban Vegetable Gardening

In outdoor gardens and container gardens, soil is what holds plant roots in place and delivers nutrients and water essential for healthy plant growth. Soil contains millions of living microorganisms; it is an ecosystem unto itself.

Academic language will blossom along with scientific understanding as students learn to identify organic and inorganic materials. Encourage questions about what they can do to improve soil quality. Earthworms, anyone? Good questions open the door to scientific investigations along with profound conversations about how we can improve our own environment.

(Like what you're reading? Sign up for our newsletter to get health insights, clever kitchen tricks, gardening secrets, and more—delivered straight to your inbox.)

child gardening learning
2/6 Hero Images/Getty Images
Think (and fail) like a scientist

A green classroom invites students to think like scientists every day. I keep a visual reminder of the scientific method posted on the wall of our National Health, Wellness, and Learning Center and refer students to it regularly. I want to power up their thinking by using the active verbs that scientists use: ask, wonder, inquire, question, test, measure, observe, evaluate, analyze. And fail. Fail often. All scientists need to know that failure is part of the scientific method. Failure is data. It tells us when we're wrong and need to try a different approach. Understanding what doesn't work is a step toward success. In a classroom filled with growing things, you have the perfect opportunity to remind students that nature succeeds by adapting to failure. The strong survive. Students will thrive when they understand that failure gives us all the opportunity to learn and grow.

child gardening
3/6 Clover No.7 Photography/Getty Images
Make your thinking visible

I want to honor my students' thinking, but I'm not a mind reader. That's why I constantly ask them to make their thinking visible. Once you know what's on their minds, then you can follow up to go deeper. Some of my favorite questions to uncover students' thinking: Why do you say that? Why you think that way? How can you defend what you're saying with evidence? There's never a one-word answer to why or how.

Related: 10 Ways To Help Your Kid Excel At School

If it turns out that students are basing their thinking on incomplete information or misunderstandings, then you can correctively instruct. What's the thinking behind their mistakes? They need to feel safe in answering that question. One of my favorite strategies is to say, "Talk to me like I'm a two-year-old. Help me understand." That flips the script, and now a struggling student gets to teach you what he or she is thinking. From there, I always build on the positive. It's not about what you can't do but what you can. "No" shuts down learning. Instead, build on "yes."

kids gardening seeds
4/6 lisafx/Getty Images
Genetic potential

Seeds are amazing little metaphors to help students understand the world—and themselves. Every tiny seed comes packed with genetic potential. It's a promise, and promises really matter to children. Promises are about the future. Show a child a picture on a seed packet and they get it: A carrot seed promises to grow into a carrot. Every seed is another story waiting to happen, but the story can't begin until the conditions are right. The same is true of children. Each one is filled with potential. Every child has a story to tell. Our job as educators and nurturers is to create fertile conditions so that all children can achieve their potential. When you make a promise to a child, be sure you can fulfill it.

child harvesting potatoes
5/6 emholk/Getty Images
Rain forest versus oasis

I used to be flattered when people called my green classroom an oasis. Not anymore. An oasis may seem wonderful while you're hanging out there, but it's not a sustainable environment. It's isolated from what's around it. In contrast, a healthy ecosystem puts out roots and shoots. It's hyper-connected and regenerative. It's more like a rain forest. That's the ecosystem I'm striving for in my green classroom.

In fact, I think it's time to challenge the current focus on sustainability. Sustainability is about maintaining the status quo, keeping things going. That's barely a starting point. I want us to aim for transformation. How can we grow something greater? How can we restore and regenerate our communities? That's what rainforest thinking will help us achieve. 

Related: 10 Skills You'll Need To Know For The End Of The World

children planting flower
6/6 Steve Debenport/Getty Images
Joyful learning

When you walk into a green classroom, you can't help but feel happy and alive. That's how I want my students and fellow teachers to feel every day. The learning we do together addresses important academic concepts, but it's not about skill-and-drill or memorization. There's room for joy and laughter along with the serious business of learning. That's refreshing for everyone—children and adults alike.

My story has been an odyssey, but I still walk into school every day with a smile on my face. I can't wait to show up and figure out what's next. If you're not having fun yet, and if your students aren't enjoying the journey, then there's something wrong. Focus on joy and you'll be amazed by what you can accomplish together.

The article 6 Lessons for Teaching Kids Gardening originally appeared on Rodale Wellness.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Comments