Explorer’s Teaching Garden is all about process. Like all deep educational experiences, the learning experiences the garden offers reach through children’s hands into the very wiring of their brains and hearts. Gardening is whole-body learning, offering rich, multi-sensory, three-dimensional, direct personal experience, unmitigated by media, from hands to head to heart.
Explorer’s garden is not for show. It’s not landscaped to perfection by a team of adult architects who are trying to create something “with children in mind.” It is a garden for doing. The product of the garden, at any given time may be abundant, or, on the surface, barren. But in the garden we learn to look deeply at the small things, things people generally pass over and ignore, and we watch the process as life springs up, unfolds and blooms. Our garden is a natural system, and we learn from it all — from the soil, bacteria and fungus, from the insects, worms and squirrels, to the weeds, seeds, sprouts and blossoms. In the garden we learn that we are one part of a beautiful whole, both mighty and minute, and everything contributes to that whole.
Worry, Chaos – and Ideas
The garden year began with hope and chaos – and worry. The post-summer- vacation garden was a battle scene of woody, fluffy-topped weeds scattering their seeds in Santa Ana winds, and gargantuan spiny zucchini plants that spilled out and across beds like advancing glaciers. The September sun blazed and burned. Traffic barreled by just feet away, and planes taking off overhead shook the air and made conversation impossible. Gardening was not a pleasant idyll. It was loud and hot and messy.
And then there were the uninvited guests. Over the summer, an army of fat and crafty squirrels had tunneled in, enjoying the bounty, and taking advantage of the broken sprinkler system and holey garden-bed cages. They were bold, glossy and – worst of all – friendly. The children had even named them.
“That one’s my favorite,” one child told me. “His name is Squeaky.”
Perhaps the worst part of beginning the endeavor was my own fear. Although I had been a recreational home gardener, and am a trained environmental educator, I had never taught gardening. What if everything we planted died? What if the squirrels ate everything? What if none of the seeds came up? What if, what if, what if…
The best cures for worry are action and knowledge. I began to get to know the garden in the same way I hoped the children would get to know it: by immersing myself in it. And as I did, my viewpoints began to change, and lessons began to emerge from the chaos.
As I pulled out hefty-bag loads of weeds, it struck me how wonderful and clever the weeds are. Lesson: weed adaptations for survival. As I began to research how to manage the squirrel population, I grew interested in the reasons the squirrels were so numerous – the lack of natural predators in the urban setting. Lesson: the value of predator/prey relationships and what happens when the balance is disturbed. As I chopped up monster zucchini leaves to make room for new plantings, I began to conceive of a new composting program for the school.
I also began to seek out experts who could help me learn how to garden better, and how to teach gardening to children. I spent much of September gathering information – curriculum such as the Child’s Garden of Standards, from the state of California, which links gardening with curricular standards, and The Growing Classroom, from the Life Lab at UC Santa Cruz. I got two wonderful Master Gardener consultants from UCSD Cooperative Extension to work with us on our school garden, one of whom is also a trained Master Composter. I consulted with them on how to amend the soil, set up composters and a vermiculture station, and how to handle the squirrels. I visited school gardens at several schools, as well as botanical gardens, to get an idea of what has been done in other places, and to see what we could do. Then I sent a letter out to teachers to let them know I was available to help them develop a garden program for their classroom that fit within the curriculum they had already planned for their classes.
Third Grade Garden Curriculum:
The third grade teachers responded immediately with their desire to plant a native plant garden that could be used in their studies of the local Native Americans, the Kumeyaay, as part of their Local History social studies curriculum. The teachers already had created an extensive project in which students studied the plants the Kumeyaay used through research, field trips, and creating books and presentations about the plants. They wanted the students to be able to actually plant and grow many of these plants.
The third grade project presented some major challenges. For one thing, most of the garden consists of raised beds filled with rich soil and watered daily on a timed system. But most of San Diego’s native plants like a poor, sandy/clay soil, and thrive on very little water. While they need to be watered regularly for the first two years, they do not like constant moisture. They also need to drive roots deep into the ground, which would be a problem in our raised beds, with their screened metal bottoms. After a consultation with a volunteer from the California Native Plant Society, we chose a suitable spot in the garden with sandy soil of uncertain origin, and no watering system. We created a list of plants to plant in the garden that had both connections to the Kumeyaay, were available locally, and were suitable to a school garden – i.e. not poisonous, not prickly, and not overly large. Then the lessons began.
We began lessons with the third grade with a combined class (40 children) presentation in which I read some passages from the book Indians of Oaks by Millicent Lee, which depicts the lives of the Kumeyaay in the late 19th century. The passages described how the Kumeyaay used native clay soil to make pots, and how they used nature’s gifts as pharmacy, grocery store, building supply store, and clothing store. I discussed specific plants they used, and brought in some samples of plants. I also brought in large pots of soil – three different types: native, garden, and natural clay. The children did a lesson called Sensual Soil from the Growing Classroom, in which they used their senses to examine and describe each type of soil. Later these words could be used by each class to write poems about soil.
The next lessons involved physical labor: groups of 5 students dug garden beds in the hard native soil, and amended the soil with a small amount of compost. Plants were purchased in early October at a once-a-year sale by the California Native Plant Society, from a list preordered at a school discount.
Then wildfires struck. While the school was in no danger, all schools were closed for a week. When we returned to school, no one could go outside. For several weeks, the plants languished in their pots. By the time we were able to plant them, some had died. But most survived, and in the next lesson, we planted our plants and enclosed their garden beds in a simple, inexpensive bamboo arch “fence” to keep other children from walking through.
The third grade classes take turns watering their Kumeyaay garden. They made signs to explain the purpose of their garden beds. They went on two field trips to learn about the Kumeyaay and the plants they used. And they researched and created books about a plant, and then sharing their knowledge in outside presentations. They are planning to create informational signs in the garden, as well.
The class is now trying to decide whether to donate the native plants to a habitat restoration project during another field trip as a community service component of the project, and buy new plants each year, or to find a way for them to get watered over the summer. Some plants can grow to be quite large, so keeping them in the ground might not be a good idea.
Fifth Grade garden program – composting
Ms. Carrico’s fifth grade class has been responsible for recycling in our school this year. As part of their recycling program, the fifth grade has also taken responsibility for composting – recycling school lunches.
To introduce the project to the class, I brought in a fossil I found in a local canyon and began a discussion about why we don’t find more fossils when there are billions of life forms that live and die on the planet every year. The answer: most things decompose.
We did several long-term experiments to observe the process of decomposition.
First, Students prepared Petri dishes with small pieces of food and soil embedded in an agar medium. Over several weeks, they observed and kept a visual record of the process by which the food decomposed and eventually disappeared.
In the second experiment, we created a compost bag — a hefty bag filled with soil, some grass, pieces of plastic, a nail, lettuce, cherrios cereal, and bread – and predicted what we would find if we checked on it in a month, after adding air each week. They predicted: a bad smell, and hard objects still visible.
I also introduced the students to our vermiculture bin, earthworm composting. The students were given small containers of worms and compost and asked to dig through and see what they could find and draw their observations. Students learned about the worms’ role in decomposition through first-hand observation.
And finally, the fifth graders built a compost heap, learning to layer the greens (nitrogenous waste) and the browns (carbon waste), and measuring the size and temperature of the heap. They remeasured the bin over the next few weeks and watched the size shrink and the temperature rise – decomposers at work! After a couple of weeks they dug through the heap to see what had changed.
The students prepared a presentation, which they took “on the road” from class to class, explaining what composting is, and what they would be collecting at lunch time. At last they were ready to begin their lunch-time collections!
Unfortunately, due to weather and Christmas vacation, actual collections did not begin until January. The first collection day was chaos! The younger children did not remember what composting was all about. The students collecting food hovered over the younger children like vultures over a freeway crosswalk. And in the end, the fifth graders did more trash picking than educating.
After a meeting with the class to discuss what worked and did not work, the students came up with a program that made more sense. The second time around, the compost collection went more smoothly. Instead of circulating with a bucket, two compost collectors sat with buckets by the trash can during first lunch, and two more during second lunch. Wearing plastic gloves, the composters also had a list of composting Dos and Don’ts to show other students. They collected a good deal of compostable foods, made some tough decisions about whether some things could be composted, and carried the compost to the bin, where they mixed it with recyclable paper strips. Success at last!
This program has been a real success because the fifth grade students understand on a very deep level one of earth’s basic systems: how nature recycles itself. They’ve seen it happen, felt the heat of the compost, and understand why what they are doing is important. An important next stage will be to use the compost in the garden to grow new plants, so they can see new life spring up from old lunches.
Two kindergarten classes opted to do a joint, progressive year-long, every-other-week garden time. Since October was as hot as September, we began our garden classes inside, and we began by looking at the garden from the bottom up: from soil, to worms, to seeds, to plants, to food – with pit stops to study weeds and insects.
We began by looking at soil: what is it made of? We read books about dirt, sang the song Dirt Made My Lunch, and got our hands dirty. I introduced the children to four different kinds of soil – sand, clay, garden loam, and our native sand/clay/rock soil — and we looked at what each was made of with magnifying glasses. Then the children made things out of natural clay.
Next we studied worms – and this was one of the most gratifying, exciting classroom experiences I have ever observed. I began by reading a book about worms and singing a song about worms, and introducing all the wonderful things worms do for us: eat our garbage, put air in the soil, and make soil with their waste. Then I brought in a big bin of red wiggler worms form our new vermiculture composter, and scooped out worms and compost onto big trays at tables around the room. The children went wild in a way that only the most joyful, open-ended learning experiences can inspire.
“Mrs. Elliott!! Look! What IS that thing?” – They discovered big worms and small, worm eggs, worms eating and mating and excreting. They discovered seeds, and molds, and pill bugs, beetles and earwigs and soldier bug larva. The worm bin was a treasure trove!
It was also a great experience for children who are a little squeamish. Some simply sat before the worms, unwilling to put their hands into the mire, for minutes at a time. Then, hearing their peers’ squeals and seeing their delight, it would dawn on them that there was something to this worm business. They’d lean in, bend a little closer – then poke a bit with a finger. Then, with a tentative, shaking hand, stroke the worm.
“I touched it!” One boy grinned. “It’s soft!”
Each lesson gave the children an opportunity a spend time physically experiencing some aspect of the garden, as well as hearing information and stories, singing about it, and sharing their observations.
When we studied seeds, I brought in seeds of different types and sizes: a coconut, millet, wheat, poppy seeds, fruit pits, peanuts, beans. We talked about the different ways that people eat seeds and the different ways they grow – as grain, fruit, nuts, etc. The children made seed collages. Then the children planted pea seeds in tiny containers, and then had a chance to observe the stages of growth when the teacher removed one seed from the soil each day to see that had happened that day – a crack one day, a tiny root the next, a sprout sneaking its head out, and finally a leaf poking up.
Planting seeds have us an opportunity to incorporate math into the garden program. First, the children came out to the garden bed and measured out one-square foot blocks, which we marked off with pencil. We used these to create a grid of twine that worked as an overlay over the soil. In class, children made name signs on popsicles sticks to show which was their garden bed. Then we planted.
Planting was a little chaotic. I did not know how very specific instructions needed to be in order for children to plant the seeds correctly. And I did not think to demonstrate the whole process in the relative quiet of the classroom, rather than the din of the streetside garden.
“Put four holes in your square,” I began by saying. Big mistake.
Some holes were the size of pinheads. Others looked like they were dug by a backhoe. One child looked like he was trying to dig to China.
I tried again. “No, I mean holes as wide as your finger and as deep as your first knuckle.”
Ten little voices clammered. “Is that THIS knuckle?” Some holes were three inches deep, while others barely scratched the surface of the soil.
“Make sure your holes have some space between them,” I called out. But how much space is “space?” Most squares had tight rows of nine holes crammed into three inches.
Somehow we got through the planting, and each child had two squares with seeds planted that (hopefully) would come up. I consulted with Zoltan Sarda, the very experienced kindergarten teacher who created our garden beds, to find out what worked better.
“I show them what to do while we’re inside on the rug,” he said. “And I tell them to plant each seed twice as deep as the seed is long.”
Winter rains watered our plants over Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks. When we returned, the plants had made good progress.
In later classes, we measured and drew our plants and the kindergarten teachers created garden journals in which the children record their plant’s growth each week.
In weeks when nothing was growing enough to measure, I brought in a pile of different weeds from the garden and we learned how weeds are adapted for survival. Then we went out into the garden and pulled some weeds.
Another week, we read a story about butterflies and we went out to the garden to see how many insects and other “bugs” we could find, while inside the children made butterfly puppets.
In the spring we will hold a garden fest. Two classroom parents, who run a catering business, will come in and help the children pick and cook some of their vegetables. The children will write invitations to invite their parents.
Second Grade: Ancestor Gardens
The second grade got a late start in the garden, not beginning lessons until November. The three teachers were open to ideas and wanted their students to have the experience of working in the garden. But they had not yet settled on how the garden curriculum could fit into their lessons. Since the second grade curriculum includes a study of students’ personal family histories, I suggested planting plants from students’ ancestral countries. After doing brief studies of soil, worms and seeds, similar to the kindergarten curriculum, we divided the three garden beds in to continents – one bed contained plants from North and South America, one from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and one from Northern and Southern Europe. Seeds were planted just before the winter vacation and seeds grew well in the winter rains.
Subsequent lessons have included a study of weed adaptations, and a lesson in which students chose a plant from their continent to measure and draw over time. In the coming weeks on February, before Spring break, we will harvest and eat some of the vegetables. Additional lessons could include cooking recipes from students’ home countries.
One challenge in the second grade garden program has been working with three classes at once. Generally, I present a 15 minute lesson to all 60 students, and then take groups of 10 students out to work in the garden at time.
Fourth grade: California History – Mission Garden Herbs
The fourth grade started working in the garden in conjunction with their social studies unit on Spanish missions. The teachers were all interested in studying what the Spaniards grew in their gardens, and how they had to alter the environment – change the soil and water – in order to grow the plants they were used to eating/using.
Finding the information on what the Spaniards actually grew was a challenge. The San Diego Historical Society had some good information from ships’ logs and a Padre’s diary, that mentioned seeds they had brought – melons, watermelons, turnips – but they had little information on seeds. They also had a book that mentioned European culinary uses for herbs in the 1700s. But nothing on Mission gardens. I threw my question to the winds – to the list serve of the California Native Plant Society, and to my two Master Gardeners – and Hanna Richardson, a wonderful gardener, responded with the name and contact information of a man who is starting an authentic garden in Old Town. He sent me a list of all the plants grown in gardens in all the Missions up and down the California coast.
I also got some information on how herbs were used medicinally and in the cuisine. Several books were helpful – The Herb Bible was one – as well as an internet historical site that shared a 18th century apothecary’s recipe book, and a site that was all about apothecary gardens in general.
Armed with the information, I paid a visit to each 4th grade class and gave a ½ hour presentation introducing the project. I had the students think about what the Spaniards saw when they arrived at Pt. Loma – what was the terrain like? What was the soil like? Where was the fresh water? Then we talked about what people would need if they were no longer exploring, but were moving in to a new place for a long stay: food, water, shelter, medicine, clothes. Then we talked about how they could get these things through agriculture.
I introduced the students to herbs from my own garden – lavender, rosemary, oregano, sage – and to the idea of growing medicines in an apothecary garden. I read them some of the more interesting – and gross – remedies from the apothecary’s book, as well as some from a curandero’s (traditional Mexican herbal doctor) web site.
With the Mission garden list in hand, I paid a visit to a local garden center and purchased sixty small herbs ( 2 ¼ inch pots), most of which matched the list. Then, in a second, outdoor lesson, we planted herbs, 7 student at a time, in three garden beds.
Subsequent lessons may include drying herbs, making an herbal tea, researching and writing about a single herb and how it is/was used, and making other preparations with the herbs, such as dyes, simple remedies, food items, or toiletries such as sachets. As the fourth grade curriculum is very full, and time is limited, I’ve tried to keep the lessons as unobtrusive and open ended as possible. This can be a very involved unit, or it can be kept very simple.
Several classes are partnering together to do their own garden units. A fifth/kindergarten partnership will do a long-term garden project together in the second half of the school year. One first grade class will do a state-plants project, but is going to grow the plants in pots so that they can be brought inside for an information night. And another first grade class has a parent who is very interested in doing a gardening program. These classes know that the support they need is available, and they have access to tools, funds, garden plots and more for their use.
In addition, plots have been offered to High Tech High’s teachers, and so far, one middle school teacher has expressed an interest.
What the Garden Needs:
Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, writes about how essential it is for children to connect their senses with the natural world. Nature, he writes, is like the ultimate open-ended, ‘loose-parts” toy, which children may use again and again in countless ways with creativity and imagination, and never tire of the experience.
He notes that intelligence about nature has recently been added as an eighth type of intelligence to Howard Gardner’s famous list of the ways in which intelligence is manifested in people. People with this type of intelligence have keen sensory skills, an ability to notice patterns in the natural worlds, an interest in things in the environment a desire to care for other living beings.
Louv also quotes Edith Cobb, a social science researcher who studied the autobiographies of great artists, authors and thinkers for her The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood, and said, “Memories of awakening to the existence of some potential, aroused by early experiences of self and world, are scattered through the literature of scientific and aesthetic invention. Autobiographies repeatedly refer to the cause of this awakening as an acute sensory response to the natural world.”
If we want our children to be creative thinkers, open and aware of the problems and joys of the world around them, and able to respond to the world around them with powerful, innovative ideas, we need to give them open-ended, multi-sensory contact with the natural world.
While gardening at Explorer can provide this contact, one big challenge has been to make our urban outdoor environment into an inviting place to be and explore.
As wonderful as it is, our garden is very loud. It is impossible to hear the birds, bugs and breeze – and sometimes impossible to hear each other. Also, the garden was built of straight lines and raised beds. The natural lines and curves of nature can get lost. Committting to an ongoing border of native garden and a butterfly garden may help to soften the hard edges.
To make the garden really inviting, a sound-proof, vine-covered wall and a big shade tree would work wonders. Also, inviting benches, student-created art, and places to sit quietly and listen to nature – or the teacher — are all essential. Adding an art component to the garden next year, as well as garden festivals, family work days and family volunteer times, would help integrate the garden more fully into our Explorer community.