You may want to try a new twist on Louisiana gardens this spring. "Have you considered using the garden as a tool to teach children life skills?" asks LSU AgCenter child-care trainer Esther Coco Vanderlick, a Rapides Parish associate agent.
"The strategy of using a garden as a teaching tool benefits both the children and adult, Vanderlick says, explaining that children learn many of the basic life skills to help them prepare for challenges later in life such as responsibility, self-confidence, communication and the skills of observation. The adult acquires a sense of accomplishment from sharing the love of gardening with the children.
"Gardening is a good way for parents and teachers to spend quality time with children," Vanderlick says.
Children learn basic skills when they observe how weather affects plants; how seeds sprout; how plants grow; how gardeners cope with plant problems; how soil, water and sunshine interact; how butterflies and other insects play a role; how the awaited harvest also foreshadows death.
"These fundamental concepts promote hands-on learning, environmental responsibility and self-confidence in children," the child-care trainer says, adding, "Gardening with children at home or in child-care programs is an open door to teaching life skills by engaging children in active learning, exploration and fun."
How does gardening foster responsibility in young children? Vanderlick says it encourages children to use their hands to prepare the soil, apply fertilizer, sow seeds, remove competing weeds, add water and harvest the crop. These practices are necessary for a plant to grow to its full potential and produce food.
"When children accept these responsibilities, we help them to become caring individuals," Vanderlick notes. And when children experience the loss of plants because of neglect, they learn the tragedies of improperly caring for the plants. Through these real-life lessons in gardening, children develop an appreciation for the value of responsibility.
Scientific discovery abounds in gardens. Animals, insects, worms and other creatures are attracted to plants growing in a garden. Children learn by observing the ecosystem in a garden- bees pollinating plants; worms living in the soil and breaking down organic matter, - working in the soil to make it more fertile and plant reproduction.
Worms produce fertilizer and mulch for plants. An ecosystem thrives in a garden and can be observed daily. Observing the process of growth and change enables children to anticipate and be patient, rather than expecting immediate gratification.
Communication channels are developed as an adult explains the natural processes that occur as plants grow and produce food. Youngsters express their gardening experiences by talking, writing and drawing. Evidence of their hard work unfolds before their eyes in the garden and classroom.
Teachers and parents can extend children’s learning from gardening by reading books and watching videos about nature. Pictures from recycled calendars and seed catalogs are colorful, and their professional photos can be displayed or used to make collages or growth charts. Fruits and vegetables are plant-based food products that extend learning when children locate seeds, peelings and other plant parts while they eat.
Vanderlick says gardening can become a primary part of an outdoor classroom and extend the learning experience. The experience will challenge both youth and adults to open channels of communication and share experiences that will be good for both. So, it is important to plant a garden with children and feel the richness of the sensory experience. Teachers who enjoy gardening will be rewarded immensely while they promote children’s love of learning and nature.
"Everyone, including children, need to learn to accept responsibility and to know they are trusted," Vanderlick says, adding, "And gardening helps children explore the benefits of completing a task and being praised by a caring adult."
The praise and gratification offered by adults when children accomplish gardening tasks help build character and responsibility through the learning process.