In our outdoor classroom, my students grow plants, discover the laws of nature, and cultivate wonder.
I teach students of all ages that failure is another word for learning if only we are attentive. Planting a baby marigold transplant too shallow or deep and noticing our role in its growth will teach us how to plant it next time. And even though shovels are fun, maybe next time we’ll just use our hands. Early in the academic year, around the fall equinox, I’ll ask: “How would you smell with your hands?” Inevitably, almost every student runs to plants they’d like to harvest. I ask again: “Who has ever tried to bring a good smell to your nose with your hands?” and a student demonstrates the kind of hands-to-nose gesture that gathers scent. We learn how running your open fingers gently through an herbaceous plant coaxes the smells to our noses without damaging plants, and how smell can teach us about which plants we can and cannot eat. The sensation of lifting a verdant fragrance to one’s face usually provides a satisfied smile.
My early childhood and elementary curriculum is built around beginning with the beginning: putting seeds in children’s hands. Some kids know how to plant by intuition; some ask; some are more excited to dig a big hole, forgetting about the seed; a few ask whether they “have to” plant, or if the seeds “just grow themselves.” Over the years, I’ve received millions of old seeds as gifts from other farmers, and while seeds’ viability decreases with age and exposure to heat, sun, and moisture, I’ve learned that the magic is in seeds’ potential. To my students, these seeds are like holding microcosmic keys to the universe. Asking students to envision what could happen, then helping them color in that picture, matters more than what does happen. We learn to identify seeds’ basic needs, and anticipate what seeds want through our sensory experience: “Who likes to take baths? What does it feel like to take a bath all day? So, what do you think would happen if we water too much and the seeds go swimming?”
Usually, something grows. But with hundreds of students broadcasting thousands of seeds in about three hundred square feet of potential growing space, we have many seeds that volunteer – especially if the space has had plants grown until they seed, and has had the soil cultivated with tools or jostled by curious hands. As something grows, its posture develops in response to wind, root health, surrounding plants, and overwatering or underwatering. Like us, plants change shape.
“Does anyone know what a habit is?” I’ll ask, and usually a few hands will pop up. Some students have been told about good habits and bad habits. They’re excited to share examples.
“Something you do,” one of my students will say matter-of-factly. Another might add: “Something you like doing.” I’ll ask my students about all their wonderful habits if that’s where their energy is.
“Speaking of something you do,” I’ll say, walking beside the weeping lavender, spindly sage, and Little Shop of Horrors-sized cardamom bush, “habit can also refer to a plant’s shape. We know what they’re doing, and even how they’re feeling, by the shape they’re making. Like I know you’re ready to ask a question or make a comment when I see you raising your hand.” I pause, smiling. “In a moment, when I ask you to stand and explore, try to find a very small plant with maybe two leaves, or maybe four leaves. Please stand next to it and raise your hand when you’ve found one. I want you to think about if we can know a plant’s habit when it’s that small, or if we must help it grow for some time before we learn its habit.” My students leave our seated circle and turn their eyes to the soil.
In early spring, our focus could turn to perennials resuming their journey, or annuals just beginning this season’s adventure. We had planted radishes and lettuce a week before this particular lesson. One student suggested that the tiny sprouts perking toward the sun must be the baby radishes. Nearly everyone enthusiastically agreed. But after prompting a closer look at the “bunny ears,” more antenna than leaf, a student suggested this could be any plant. Whenever my students raise a new possibility, I initiate a conversation. I ask for a show of hands: Who agrees? Who disagrees, and can someone tell me why they agree or disagree? When their answers get competitive, I remind my students that we’re just figuring out how things grow in our world together.
“Who eats salad at home?” Hands raise. “Is this what lettuce looks like in your salad at home?”
“It’s bigger from the supermarket,” someone will say.
“And crunchier,” another will add, as if they’d eaten it with their eyes.
“Is there a way to know for sure it’s lettuce or do we have to eat it? Like, who here knows who cavemen are?” Hands won’t always go up if they have no idea how I’m going to make sense. “Do you think people living a long, long time ago, thousands and thousands of years ago – do you think they knew what was lettuce, or what seeds grew what vegetables, or they figured it out by tasting?”
My students fidget and squeal with excitement to answer, maybe sensing a taste test is around the corner. Learning can make that happen. And I do believe, especially in an environment that’s growing and learning all the time, students are never too young to learn about learning.
“Who can tell me how we help each other remember things?”
“We talk about them over and over.”
“Can we eat the lettuce already?” This is an inevitable question.
“If it keeps growing,” I answer. “Maybe we can draw a picture of it today, to know what it looks like when it’s a baby, and when it’s a grown-up lettuce we can learn how to taste-test it. Everyone, take a picture with your brains to remember the lettuce.” When a student challenges this technique, we’ll use popsicle sticks to identify the little plants in question. And when the lettuce turns out not to be lettuce, we’ll talk about it. Seeds buried more than three-quarters of an inch down have little chance to detect sunlight, push aside soil, root a strong, thinner-than-hair radical, crack their seed coat, and sprout the fuel they’ve incubated within the belly of their seed into cotyledons – the training wheels of leaves – so often we’re discovering seeds students didn’t plant. Most everything viable in the top quarter inch will make every effort to sprout, and resisting the urge to plant more than a fingernail deep can be tough for curious hands, just as not stepping on the compost can be tough for curious feet. I have to keep in mind that my students, too, are making every effort to sprout.
Students sometimes pay attention to their wonder rather than “the rules.” Even after hearing that overwatering will send a seed swimming or prevent a plant from the water search that will biologically encourage root growth, students will watch their hands emptying a watering can, then ask for a refill. Sometimes they’ll keep coaxing transplants upright, afraid that roots not instantaneously grabbing hold of soil and stems not magically figuring out how to stand before they can crawl means the plants have no chance. Reminding students how they learned to crawl before standing may increase their knowledge, but not translate to their hands. They may still neglect to make sure their transplant’s roots are completely buried before they run off and start peeling tree bark or kicking away our garden’s mulch “winter blanket.” They know not to do these things, but until they’re asked or reminded why, they cannot resist the wonderful opportunities to engage the senses. Yet even the peeling of bark or kicking of mulch is a kind of paying attention.
Each fall, right when we come back to school, we have two months of warm enough temperatures to nurture seed-based lessons. We weave in all our fundamentals: how roots find water, what the sun does for leaves, and soil’s hidden ingredient – air! Even in late fall and winter, my students ask to plant seeds until I remind them of their responsibility to the plants already flourishing in our garden, and plants yielding seeds for us to save and grow new plants in spring. Besides, there’s only so much space to share – each tomato, cucumber, amaranth, or sunflower seed will grow a plant that wants to become enormous. This spring, my pre-K students planted arugula seeds from 2014 seeds, and my kindergarteners’ sunflowers from 2016. My students have been harvesting and taste-testing the arugula that sprouted, and my high schoolers are learning to cut with pruners so that the leaves grow back as many times as they can, then senesce into flowers that yield seeds. In our garden, we grow most plants until they seed and then return to the ground, or, in other words “die.” If you were a plant, why would you return to the ground? Imagine what my students would say.
My kindergarteners learn that everything that grows will eventually die, but only in a way. A plant’s inevitable abundance transitions energy used for color, flavor, and vegetative growth into bolting – stems giraffing upwards, like a skyward lightning bolt – and seed growth. Many of my students gasp when I show them a “dirty” fingernail holding twenty or eighty seeds. I isolate one dot and show them a plant thousands of times its size, yielding thousands of seeds. “How many of these seeds do you think it took to grow this plant?” I hold up one finger after everyone has guessed wrong.
When I teach in religious environments, this is often a time when my student will mention God’s involvement in and with nature. I am Jewish, and when I teach Jewish students, I feel empowered to work with students through a culture that is explicitly reverent, if not wonder-filled, towards nature. In Hebrew, the word for seed, זֶרַע (zera), has the same root as the word for help or aid, עֶזרָה (ezra). The implication of seeds exemplifying helpfulness isn’t lost on me. The Hebrew language offers teaching tools to ground both the sacred text and gardening in wonder. For example, the literal translations of the first two humans’ names: Eve, a loose if not phonetically estranged transliteration of חַוָה(Hava), translates as farm or garden. Adam, transliterated phonetically from אָדָם (Adam), comes from the word for land, ground, or Earth. Not only does God command humanity to steward the land, but scripture emphasizes that our progenitors are named for land. Even without sharing an explicit religious reverence, outdoor education can facilitate a deep sense of wonder.
In the woods or park, we warm up for a nature walk by imitating the step of different creatures. There are numerous ways to engage our bodies in the wonder of the natural world and very few wrong ways to begin. I prompt my students to gather a “mini-museum” of objects that can fit on one hand. Then we take a “museum tour” of everyone’s hands. I encourage us all to revisit the same trees, plants, and landscapes each season and pay attention to their sensory experience every time, or intentionally begin sentences with “I notice,” “I wonder,” or “this reminds me of,” as we walk along a favorite trail with a friend.
I am a farmer-educator because my senses tell me that if experience is valuable as a source of learning, we have much to learn from plants. Like plants, we “grown-ups” have seasons to begin again, and those of us fortunate enough to learn and work with children, seeds, and soil have a wonderful opportunity to reflect upon and practice beginning again each day.