It’s spring! Time to plant a garden – or, for those who don’t have the time or the space, to stick a pot or two on a sunny windowsill. Either way, gardening at any level is a great hands-on learning opportunity for kids of all ages. And there are dozens – well, hundreds – of wonderful garden-based resources.
A classic is Ruth Krauss’s The Carrot Seed, for ages 3 and up, originally published in 1945 – the simple story of a little boy who plants a carrot seed and faithfully cares for it, in spite of the fact that everyone around him is convinced it won’t grow. For all his faith and persistence, he’s rewarded with a perfectly enormous carrot. The opposite of The Carrot Seed’s protagonist – a model of perseverance – is Toad in Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad Together. In the story of “The Garden,” Toad – who wants a garden as gorgeous as that of his friend, Frog – plants seeds and then falls into a frenzy of impatience. (“Grow, seeds!”) It’s a helpful tale for kids who find themselves in the same boat. (It also helps to plant something fast-sprouting, like radishes.)
Kevin Henkes’s My Garden, for ages 3-8, is a marvelous exercise in imagination as a little girl invents her ideal garden, populated with color-changing flowers, chocolate rabbits, and tomatoes the size of beach balls. This is a fun project for everyone – imagine one of your own! You might even consider turning it into a wall mural – for starter hints, check out No Time for Flashcards’s Spring Garden Mural.
Peter Brown’s The Curious Garden, for ages 4-9, is a story of how small acts can have large consequences. Young Liam, who lives in a barren city devoid of anything green, finds a tiny plot of wildflowers beside an abandoned railroad track and is determined to save them. At first, Liam’s attempts are disastrous – he has no idea how to garden – but gradually he learns, and soon the garden flourishes and spreads to the entire city.
In Paul Fleischman’s Seedfolks, for ages 10 and up, set in a poverty-stricken urban neighborhood in Cleveland, Kim, a young Vietnamese girl, finds a hidden spot behind a rusted refrigerator in a vacant lot and plants lima beans. Soon more and more people join her – all with their own very different reasons – and the garden begins to bloom.
Also for ages 10 and up, Rumer Godden’s An Episode of Sparrows is a wonderful read, the story of young Lovejoy Mason, abandoned by her mother and left in the care of Vincent and Ettie Combie who run a struggling restaurant in London. Lovejoy – a tough street kid with a marshmallow heart – creates a garden in the ruins of a bombed-out church, with the help of a kindly older boy, Tip Malone. Unfortunately, the pair run afoul of Miss Angela Chesney of the Garden Committee when they begin taking (“stealing,” says Angela) buckets of dirt from a local park. Ultimately, with the help of Angela’s sympathetic older sister Olivia, all ends happily, with a number of fulfilled heart’s desires.
For budding Jane Austen fans, Marcia Williams’s 112-page Lizzy Bennet’s Diary is a clever graphic version of Pride and Prejudice, told from protagonist Lizzy’s point of view in scrapbook/diary format, including fold-out letters and notes, pressed flowers, invitations, and sketches. A charmer and a wonderful introduction to Austen’s works for ages 8-12.
For creative would-be gardeners, Beyond the Bean Seed, by Nancy Allen Jurenka and Rosanne J. Blass, is a great compendium of garden-related books, recipes, games, writing projects, and arts and crafts activities. Included are instructions for planting bee, bird, butterfly, windowsill, container, and clock gardens, plus directions for making a terrarium, seed markers, a scarecrow, and even a blueberry-dyed stuffed bear.
Similarly, Laurie Carlson’s Green Thumbs: A Kid’s Activity Guide to Indoor and Outdoor Gardening is crammed with projects and activities for young gardeners – everything from building a garden-friendly birdhouse to cultivating peanuts in a pot. Or check out Sharon Lovejoy’s charmingly illustrated Roots, Shoots, Bucket, and Boots, a terrific compendium of garden-based activities, including instructions for planting a range of cool themed gardens, among them a pizza patch, a moon garden, and a Zuni waffle garden.
For young scientists, see Jim Conrad’s Discover Nature in the Garden, for ages 10 and up, which covers plants, animals, and backyard ecology, all with a reader-friendly text, helpful diagrams, and a lot of hands-on activities. For example, kids learn about plant anatomy and behavior, insect behavior and classification, garden interrelationships, and more.
For gardeners anytime – indoors or outdoors, summer or winter – check out TOPS Learning Systems, which publishes excellent scientific activity units for a range of ages. The TOPS units show kids how to build sophisticated scientific equipment from simple (really) household materials and then use these to conduct experiments, record data, maintain lab journals, and reach conclusions. In the Life Science series, “Green Thumbs: Radishes” is recommended for grades 3-8, and “Green Thumbs: Corn and Beans” for grades 4-12. Learn about plant growth, photosynthesis, tropisms, and more.
And who doesn’t have table scraps? Turn them into a garden! Deborah Peterson and Millicent Selsam’s Don’t Throw It, Grow It! has instructions for growing 68 different windowsill plants from plain old kitchen leftovers. A great project for all ages - give it a try!
Spring is a great time to join Project Budburst, a citizen-science project sponsored by the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), in which participants select a chosen plant and track first leaf, first flower, first fruit, and leaf color year-round. Sign up! Available at the website are lesson guides for various age groups.
Rebecca Rupp lives in Vermont and has written nearly two dozen books - fiction and non-fiction - for both children and adults, as well as several books and many articles on homeschooling. She has been an educational consultant for the American Library Association and the Vermont Center for the Book; she blogs on food science and history for National Geographic and at her own blog, Let’s Learn All About It