Plant-based knowledge: Six tips on what gardening can teach kids

Apr. 19—Lessons learned in the garden can grow immeasurably for children as a portal into the natural world. Take it from a Spokane gardener who has helped kids harvest plant-based knowledge for 15 years.

Sue Malm, a WSU Master Gardener since 2006, leads the program's youth committee. She's visited many school gardens, science fairs and classrooms, gaining tips on how to lead children toward a love of gardening.

And she's witnessed much learning among the leaves. Her own childhood experiences in the garden weren't so positive. "It was go outside and weed in the scorching sun," she said. "I thought, 'this is boring and no fun at all.' "

But since her turn to gardening by her 30s, "I see how much the kids are enjoying it. It's just wonderful that we have evolved to the point where we are teaching kids that gardening is fun. It isn't just a chore."

So how do families make it fun? Go slow and don't expect perfection, Malm said. Adults should plan on showing kids how to use garden tools and work the soil with them. Keep in mind that younger children have short attention spans, she said.

"So, you start them with something that sprouts fast, like a radish," Malm said. "There isn't any instant gratification with gardening, but growing a radish is about as close as you can get. They start to see you get a payoff for what you've done."

Kids usually love to be involved with growing strawberries, as well, because of the fruit.

"If you involve them in activities in the garden that enable them actually to get their hands in the soil, it's fun for them — if you're not really strict," such as insisting on straight rows, she said.

"But if you say, 'We need to work in a little fertilizer or compost into the soil, so we're going to put on a pair of gloves, and here's a garden tool,' that's fun."

Kids digging in the soil gain a sense of discovery. They often unearth worms and bugs that are fascinating to them. Embrace that, she said. Maybe, a parent has to finish out the row.

"There is something about kids and this natural affinity for insects and worms that, unless an adult screams, 'Oh no, don't touch it,' the child just sees this little, fascinating creature," she said. "Gardening helps them have an appreciation, frankly, for all living creatures whether plants, insects or worms."

Here are other garden lessons learned:

Connecting plants in the ground to meals. Children start to understand that plants harvested are tied to what's in the grocery store and at meals. Kids who are finicky about eating vegetables are more inclined to eat what they've helped grow. When that transfers to food benefiting the family, it can be empowering.

Ties to the natural world. "Gardening is a hands-on experience, and that type of activity is so important now when so much of what kids do is associated with virtual experiences," Malm added. Being close to the earth and plants engages all the senses.

—Vision: They're absorbing all the natural world's colors, and green itself is soothing. Kids especially are attracted to bright flowers, Malm said.

—Touch: She said children are drawn to the many textures found in plants and vegetables.

—Smell and taste: Particularly with herbs, "they recognize right away that something that smells good is fascinating," she said. "I've watched kids in the school garden pinch off a bit of a herb, rub it in their hand and run around to friends to say, 'Smell this.' "

—Hearing: The plants don't talk, but kids in the garden hear bees buzzing and birds chirping. "Kids really make a connection with that, so being out in the garden allows them that kind of experience."

Math and reading skills. In advising many Spokane Area Schools' Montessori students as they plan gardens, the children map them on graph paper for spacing between plants and measuring the area they have.

Kids have to read the back of seed packets to learn about planting instructions and plant care. They can write in a journal with planting dates, garden activity and results.

Patience and responsibility. Although Malm mentions short attention spans, gardening does provide lessons in patience. "If they sow a seed, they have to wait for the seed to sprout. They also get a sense of responsibility because they have to take care of that."

Shirking those duties can provide a lesson. "If they let this little seedling go without watering it for a few days and then come to give it a drink, and it's dead, this is a big consequence.

"But you'd have to admit this is a pretty easy way to learn the cause and effect of consequences. A little dead seedling isn't the end of the world, but that lesson learned is important."

Problem-solving. "Things don't always go the way you think they're going to go in the garden," Malm said. "There are disappointments and invasions with pests."

Once, she went to a school's garden to plan activities one day ahead of when she'd be there with students. The cabbages were covered in aphids.

"My first instinct as a gardener was just take the hose and hose them all off, so we'd have this picture-perfect cabbage for kids to look at. Then I thought, wait a minute, let's have the kids see that insects will invade their plants."

The next day, she told them about the aphids and handed out magnifying glasses. Kids were fascinated. "We talked about the aphids, about what they were doing to the plant and about why we don't like them on the plant, so how can we get rid of them? There's the problem-solving."

They talked about ladybugs and moved a few to the cabbages that provided another source of awe, she said. "Kind of like a monster movie where something big is devouring little creatures." Ladybugs weren't plentiful, so the group resolved to spray off the aphids with a hose for several days in another lesson: diligence.

Learning about life cycles. Kids observe that as the growing season ends, annual plants die off but can go on to help other plants, Malm said. You and a child can put them on a compost pile, and, as they decompose, they're going to provide nutrition for next year's plants. Have kids collect seeds from them to continue a plant's life.

For perennials, you can talk to kids about how the top of the plant is going to die over the winter, so you can't see it, but the roots underneath the ground are still alive. "They're going to provide new shoots next spring — those are the cycles that are involved in nature."

For more information, check the WSU Master Gardener Program website at Libraries offer books for children and gardening. Malm likes "Roots, Shoots, Buckets and Boots," by Sharon Lovejoy; "Sunflower Houses," also by Lovejoy; and "Grow It. Eat It," by Linda Larson.