In the Garden:
Middle South
July, 2005
Regional Report

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Isabel, budding naturalist and cat whisperer, takes a break from weeding to cuddle our normally very skittish kitty.

Gardening (and Learning) with Children

Did you know that a ladybug is pink when it emerges from its pupa, and it slowly turns darker red? I learned that from my 8-year-old friend, Isabel. She and her mom came out to my flower farm recently to help me weed, and they ended up also teaching me a thing or two!

Much has been written about how wonderful gardening is for children. The garden is an ideal learning environment, and creative educators can weave lessons in math, social studies, science, language, and more into gardening activities. However, when we garden with kids, we adults often set ourselves apart as the teachers, with kids as the learners. Doing so can shortchange us -- and the kids, too.

Natural Observers
Children see, smell, hear, and feel things differently than adults do. Adults are often distracted and pulled in so many directions that it can be hard for us to stop, look, and listen. Many children, on the other hand, are skilled observers, and they carry fewer prejudices about what is good and what is bad.

I watched a rerun of the TV show Monk the other night, and in once scene the obsessive Adrian Monk is walking through a field with a 2-year-old. The child picks up a stick and puts it into his mouth. Horrified, Monk teaches the boy to repeat after him: "Nature is dirty." Although intended to be humorous, the vignette carried a kernel of truth, too. Most adults will take pains to avoid touching caterpillars, spiders, slugs, and toads; many children are drawn to such fascinating creatures -- until someone teaches them otherwise. Adults also tend to dismiss common things, preferring the exotic. Children don't make such distinctions, and will enjoy blowing the seeds off a dandelion more than looking at -- but not touching -- a rare flower. If you observe the symmetry of a dandelion seedhead, you'll see that it's as much a wonder of nature as the rarest orchid.

An Afternoon of Learning
Little Isabel also pointed out the "sourgrass" growing in my gardens. I'd been pulling this weed, (Oxalis stricta, yellow oxalis, a clover lookalike with yellow flowers) for years without knowing that it was edible and had a surprisingly sour taste. Isabel harvested some and we had it with our dinner. I'll be looking at that "weed" with more appreciation now.

Later, as we headed back to the house we approached the broccoli planting. I strode purposefully, looking forward to showing off the huge plants and developing heads; Isabel and her mom meandered. Suddenly Isabel stopped short and picked up an impossibly tiny, perfectly formed praying mantis, no more than 3/4 inch long. Not only had I never seen one so small, I also can't imagine how she spotted it among the jumble of weeds. The tiny mantis looked at us, cocking its head puppylike, then Isabel gently placed it back on its perch. The broccoli seemed mundane after that discovery.

Later that evening, as we were eating dinner on the porch, I asked Isabel and her mom if they wanted to see my elephant ears. Isabel's eyes popped, and it took me a moment to realize what she was thinking. "No, not REAL elephant ears, the plants." We all had a good laugh over that one. In a few short hours, Isabel changed the way I see my gardens, and I'm thankful for that. I'll be looking at weeds, ladybugs, and elephant ears with new eyes, and to me that is one of life's greatest gifts.

And not only did I learn some new things, I could see that Isabel was thrilled to teach me and share her discoveries. Sharing in a child's curiousity and adventure sparks more of the same -- in both child and adult. And in doing so, we show children that learning is a lifelong pursuit, a hobby that never grows old. A child -- or adult -- that is curious and is given the tools to learn is never bored!


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