Small children naturally love growing things. They can learn much about plants, botany and ecology by early experiences. It is truly important to expose the very young to nature, to instill respect for and understanding of the process of our ecosystem. Plants are key players, and kids are never too young to learn about them. Here are some great ideas and online links for resources, tried and true.
Take Nature walks, in all seasons. Point out the different stages of the same plants, when possible, and how vital it is to allow them to grow. materials are online for free to help teach these important lessons. Point out which parts of the plants are used, and which parts change as they grow. Make sure to educate them about poison ivy or oak…the shiny, reddish ”Leaves of Three, Let them Be.”
Teach the cycle by letting the children plant their own – beets are fun because they sprout and grow and mature very fast, as do radishes. Salad greens and beans may also sprout quickly and encourage good eating habits. Flowers are always fun, but somehow children love to grow things they can eat. So, try edible flowers like nasturtiums, and the humble violet. It only takes a bit of potting soil and some small cups to get them started. The combination of light and water and soil leads to more good lessons about the water cycle and ecology. If there are any failures, like dried-out cups, too much heat, or too much water, take the time to talk about these problems and why they happened. Empower the kids to try to again, and to make adjustments. Nature is flexible, and rewards good stewardship.
As the plants grow, have the children make drawings and a chart about the growth cycle. Read them Jack and the Beanstalk and other classics like the Johnny Appleseed story, or any of countless stories about plants. Let them illustrate their own stories about plants. Tune them into fascinating things like the Plants. Grow a tipi of morning glories or climbing beans on a tripod of poles that the kids can crawl into just for fun.
Make crafts using plants that have gone to seed or grow in plentiful numbers. Some easy projects include: the inevitable thistle hedgehogs, with just little eyes and cardboard feet and a small cardboard or stick tail needed, glued on with white school-glue; the always-popular woven rushes or grass mats; the horsetail pop-off loop-gun – a simple loop made from the stem, then pull it back like a bow to pop off the top; rings and fairy-crowns of braided flowers or stems with leaves; Queen Anne’s lace. Other crafts can feature themes. Even the smallest children can be taught to twine a wreath or bring a stem into a circle. Keep their motor and attention skills in mind, and try to keep things simple.
Consider an aquatic garden in your home or classroom. These get a bit more involved for the adult on hand, but children love the action of combining fish or snails with plants. Underwater plants can be transplanted from local streams or bought at aquarium stores, maybe with a single fish to fertilize those plants.
Or, a terrarium is a wonderful microcosm of plant life and the water cycle – use moss, small plants and pebbles, with a layer of sandy soil with a bit of activated charcoal and layer (in reverse order) into a mason jar or small round fishbowl or even an unbreakable bottle, then water (rain!) and cover with glass or plastic wrap or the lid for an example of how the whole atmosphere works and plants create their own oxygen. You could include a small salamander or newt for even more nature-drama, turning it into a vivarium. A bit of ventilation to refresh the system is sometimes required, and partial sun is best, no terribly hot windowsills, to allow for condensation to work. Children love these tiny worlds, and they are just the right height to collect those small plants.
Plants are magical and have their own personalities. Let the children relate to them, and learn about traditional plant symbolism and myths, traditions and plants in great artworks. Take them to museums and let them find and identify plants and flowers in paintings. Visit your local parks and Agricultural Centers for free programs and materials about your regional plants. Get the kids excited about growing plants for food, first aid, and simple beauty. Let the children unfold and grow, just like plants!