The Garden as Classroom: Springtime

Contributed by Jennie Marable

With our unusually warm weather here in *sunny* Portland, we’re feeling the urge to take our studies outdoors. Getting going in the garden is a wonderful way to stay on task while switching gears and keeping things feeling fresh as we learn. Even with limited space and a small budget, there are a couple of small-scale projects anyone can do with little gardeners. My almost five year-olds are very excited about writing and drawing right now, so for us, everything ties into working on those skills. In my experience as a garden educator in the public schools, I have seen that the act of growing things is deeply engaging to learners of all styles and abilities, and can be adapted to teach math, science, and literacy. It hones some very important skills: planning, taking responsibility, observation, and problem-solving, to name just a few.

Gardening can be as expensive and time-consuming or as cheap and easy as you want it to be. We have no yard and almost zero outdoor space, but we grow our own vegetables, herbs and flowers–enough to have a surplus to give away to our grateful neighbors. Gardening is a great way to build community and to brighten the corner where you are. Here’s what we are doing right now:

Reading. There are some wonderful books about gardening for children*. Above are two of my favorites for very young children. The Tiny Seed inspired the following project:

Twig Journals. For older children, these can be a place to record observations or do botanical drawings. We used ours to make phonogram books about the seed cycle. To make your own you’ll need the following:
Paper lunch bags
Sturdy twig (about 4 ” long)
Heavy Gauge Rubber bands (size 64)
Blank paper cut to size
The bag is your cover, and the open end can be used as a pocket for collections on nature walks. If you want more pockets, add more bags. Punch two holes at the folded edges of the bag and folded paper, cut to size. Thread rubber band through and then insert stick through loops, top to bottom.

What can we grow? How does it grow? Where will it grow? Sprout potatoes, experiment with avocado seeds, transplant cuttings. If you have a sunny spot, a few containers (easily sourced from your recycling bin), and an inquisitive bent, you can try different ways of growing things, and learn from what succeeds and what fails. A great way of teaching kids how to predict and observe–important science (and life) skills.


Bulbs. Easy, fast, and exciting. The mossy stick is another project–we’ve been experimenting with how long we can keep moss alive indoors. This amaryllis is a year-long project. We forced the blooms in the winter, and come true spring we’ll put it outdoors and repeat the cycle–a way to tie in studies about weather, the growing cycle, and the importance of winter and dormancy to living things.


Living Necklaces. This is an EXTREMELY low maintenance and inexpensive project for the garden averse. You’ll need:
Jewelry bags
a length of yarn
cotton balls
bean seeds
If you have a crafty bent, you can sew your own bags–just make sure the fabric is sheer enough to let light in. Soak the cotton ball in water, wrap the bean in the ball, and tuck it in the bag. Thread the yarn through to make a necklace. Show your child how to keep the cotton ball moist, but not soaking, and to keep the bag in a sunny spot. Within a week or two the seed should sprout–this sprout is called a cotyledon, and it is the first plant part you see when a seedling pokes out of the ground. Cotyledons help feed seedlings until they can make their own food. Once your bean sprouts, it can be re-planted in a small container. Keep it in a sunny window until late April (all my garden projects are based on our maritime growing season) when it can be moved outside…

Ideas to discuss/Things to do:
What does a plant need to grow?
Where do plants grow best?
How do people use plants?
Can you draw the parts of a plant?
Can you name the parts of a plant?
Can you name the stages of the growing cycle?
What grows where we live? What doesn’t? Why?
Happy Growing!
*Suggested Reading
The Little House series, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Tiny Seed, by Eric Carle
Two Little Gardeners,by Margaret Wise Brown & Edith Thacher Hurd
An Edible Alphabet, by Bonnie Christensen
Plant Secrets, by Emily Goodman
Science with Plants, by Helen Edom
Garden Anywhere, by Alys Fowler (a great guide to getting started, cheaply)


One comment

  1. Jennie, there are so many great ideas in this post! I love the idea that even if you don’t have a large outdoor space you can still actively incorporate gardening into your everyday life. I have found gardening to be such an important part of my children’s early years … there is something magical about watching life grow, and kids enjoy it just as much as we adults do 🙂 Thanks again for such an inspirational piece of writing – I look forward to the next one!

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