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Cultivating "Green Valets"

A new book, plus inspiring local educators, show parents how to contrive gardens for kids.

 

Children look so happy exploring gardens — discovering the delights of greenery, flowers, wildlife and fresh food, but also observing myriad glimpses into the life cycles abounding in a natural environment. Watching little ones romping through gardens renders me hopelessly poetic. And their enthusiasm is so contagious as they dart about like sprightly human wildflowers — smiles as exuberant as sunbeams, cheeks pink as buttercup petals, tousled curls caressing the breeze like tiny leaves on emerging sprigs. (See what I mean about poetic?)

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Kindergarten means "children's garden" — here Montessori students pick flowers to make casual arrangements for the classrooms.
(All photos by Vivian Savitt except as noted.)

Autumn, when parents and others tackle planting and maintenance tasks, is a fine time to rekindle the long-standing tradition of family gardening. If the idea seems daunting, a new book from Timber Press — Gardening Projects for Kids: 101 ways to get kids outside, dirty and having fun, by Whitney Cohen and John Fisher ($19.95, 264 pp., illustrated) — is a prime motivator toward getting the project underway and making you feel good for inspiring young minds.

Besides being parents themselves, authors Cohen and Fisher are leaders at Life Lab, a 30-year-old nonprofit organization and pioneer in the garden-based education movement, in Santa Cruz, Calif.

Many of the book's activities are offshoots of other parents' experiences. Among my favorites is the "First Harvest Jig," a family dance honoring whoever discovers the first ripe tomato, snap pea, etc. of the season.

Another one, planting a "creature bed," could include plants such as lamb's ear, lion's tail, tiger lily, snapdragon, bee balm and butterfly bush — all growable in southwestern New Mexico.

The kid in me loves the idea of "garden scavenger hunts." These find prospective scavengers coloring "hunt cards," like a fuzzy leaf, a sparkly rock, a plant with thorns to protect itself, a plant chewed by an animal, a bird feather, a snail shell — and so on and so forth.

"A family garden will look and feel very different from a typical adult garden," the authors write. They describe ways to make your garden "play-friendly, safe and whimsical." Among the ideas initiated by kids themselves are: child-sized nests made from woven branches, moats or miniature rivers for floating leaf boats and outdoor sitting areas for favorite dolls.

The Life Lab experts advise parents that rule number one is: invite kids to join in or not, as they choose.

 

A local pro at garden enrichment programs is Martha Egnal, garden supervisor and seventh-grade assistant at the Guadalupe Montessori School in Silver City. With a decade of hands-on gardening experience, she's a whiz at motivating young people.

"It's one thing," Egnal says, "to ask, ‘Who wants to help me weed?' It's another to say, ‘Who wants to help me pick food for the chickens?' Kids adore chickens! The three- to five-year-olds love catching roly-polies and grasshoppers to feed to them."

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Watering can in hand, Cindy Lee, a science teacher at C.C. Snell Middle School in Bayard, checks plantings inside the school greenhouse, which was made possible by a grant from Freeport-McMoran. Lee is a former recipient of the state’s prestigious Golden Apple Award for excellence in teaching.

Egnal advises that in a family garden, adults should keep in mind that the effort is a learning experience for both child and grownup, and there will always be both failures and successes.

Martha's worldview encompasses teaching children to become comfortable outdoors — to not be afraid of bugs, bees or dirt. "We discuss which bugs are good, bad or dangerous."

All Montessori students — from toddlers to seventh graders — use the 10,000-square-foot bricolage garden experientially as part of the school's educational philosophy.

"Toddlers develop their physical coordination and awareness by walking on garden paths aside the garden beds," Egnal says. For the wee ones, "picking a flower becomes a test of motor-skill development. They also explore, smell herbs and flowers, dig in the soil and, of course, feed the chickens." Thirty such fowl call the Montessori School home.

The pre-Ks and kindergartners also engage in the aforementioned activities, while also watering, planting seeds, looking for bugs and pulling weeds. Similar to a sandbox, a designated digging area provides a place for playing with sticks and rocks so as not to disturb the plantings.

All Montessori teachers use the garden as an extension of the classroom environment. "There are so many teachable moments in a garden," Egnal says.

Hillary Pierce, who teaches the "younger elementary level — ages six to nine," is garden-side with her students at least once a week, where they learn everything from dissecting flowers to composing with pencil and paper while watching the chickens or observing the change of seasons. "Students use their senses and practice observational skills," Pierce says.

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Seventh graders at C.C. Snell in the greenhouse.
(Photo by Cindy Lee)

In the garden, arithmetic can be applied to measuring the length of a vegetable row and determining how many plants will fit it.

In higher grades, students research various aspects of individual plant species — referencing botanical names and cultural requirements into reports. This serves as an appropriate rainy or chilly day activity, when indoor projects might also include the design and painting of plant identification tags — perhaps on wood or rocks.

In inclement weather, making birdhouses from gourds serves as an entertaining classroom activity. Educational components come into play as students determine the size of the hole in relation to a species' size and nesting preferences.

The importance of food production and nutrition is learned early. Students come to appreciate fresh, tasty vegetables — harvesting seasonal varieties for the kitchen supervisor who prepares lunchtime meals. The school's booth at the Silver City Farmers' Market serves as both a fund-raising outlet and a means to learn small-business development.

Herbs like catnip and chamomile are not only dried and bartered, but also studied for past and present medicinal usage.

By seventh grade, students seem not only horticulturally precocious, but also poised to become savvy entrepreneurs.

 

Where a garden does not exist as a learning option, a greenhouse becomes a vital substitute. This is the case in Bayard, for students in science teacher Cindy Lee's seventh-grade classes at C.C. Snell Middle School.

Each of Lee's six science classes has a designated project area in the greenhouse. "Even in a small area, so much can be learned from taking care of plants," says Lee. "Growing one tomato plant can be a therapeutic experience for students and also gives them a sense of responsibility and feeling successful."

This year's class theme is "Stewardship: caring for resources, property and living things."

Inside her science classroom, aquariums and cages for mice, rabbits, turtles and many other creatures offer ongoing opportunities to observe wildlife. One project — composting rabbit droppings to grow grass — offers a chance to see the food cycle in action as new grass is used once more to feed the rabbits.

Tomatoes are propagated for the school cafeteria, where they often appear in taco salad. Green onions are harvested and sent home for families to enjoy together.

The abundance of learning opportunities like these for children in both schools and family gardens gives cause for optimism. Perhaps these enlightened little folks will grow into a generation of green valets — in aid to the planet. Hooray for the green valets!

 

 

 

Vivian Savitt gardens at Ditch Cottage in Silver City.

 

 



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