National educational policy is focused on helping students achieve success in their academic careers, but some experts believe that we've forgotten the importance of play to children's mental, physical, and social development. In fact, play is the basis of the development of critical thinking skills.
With emphasis on standardized testing, kids today are given less time than ever for imaginative play and self-directed exploration. In the atmosphere created by current educational mandates, scheduling 'free' time in your school day may not be an option, but with a garden, you've got a leg up! Most kids love being in the garden and already enjoy and look forward to hands-on, garden-related lessons. By offering activities in the spirit of fun, you can add a little more play to their day.
Your garden provides the space and materials to captivate the attention of your students; all you need to add is a sense of adventure to transform learning experiences into games. Students will have so much fun they won't even realize they're learning valuable life skills and lessons.
Here are some ideas for adding even more fun to your garden experiences. (Shhhh! Don't tell the kids but they'll learn something, too!)
Create Spaces for Imagination
Children need safe places to exercise their imaginations, and gardens provide the space to meet that need. When you design your garden, make sure to leave room for kids to play and explore freely. As students roam among the plants, they might imagine they are on a tropical safari in an unknown land, or they might use stones, bark, and blossoms to set the table for a tea party. Although it's important to establish a few safety rules, be flexible. If kids break a few branches and pick some leaves and flowers, it's not the end of the world -- it may be the beginning of one in a child's mind. Who knows -- the observation skills and creativity kids hone by playing in the garden may help them invent the miracle technologies of the future.
You can also add garden features to spur students' imaginations:
child-sized tables and chairs
stepping stones through beds to allow them to inspect plants more closely
hiding places, such as bean tepees and sunflower houses
hardy plants that will tolerate and encourage sensory exploration, such as lamb's ears for touching and herbs for smelling
vine-covered arches for shade and mystery
an open area of soil for digging and exploring
Need more ideas? Ask the kids what they'd like to have in the garden!
Additionally, have these tools available for kids to use at recess:
hand lenses or magnifying glasses to look at soil, plants, and insects in a different way
small trowels or spoons for digging
- bags for collecting outdoor items
Organize a Scavenger Hunt
You can add a sense of competition by providing a reward for the first one finished or just reward everyone equally for completing the list (though often just completing the hunt is reward enough). Students can work individually, or form small groups to foster team spirit.
If you feel comfortable having students collect items in the garden, give each child or group a paper bag and a list of items to search for (e.g., a fuzzy leaf, a leaf with a pleasant odor, a piece of mulch, a flower). For very young children, you can supplement the list with simple line drawings. Back in the classroom, everyone can share their collections and see the diversity of items found. Instead of removing the items from the garden, you can just ask them to check items off the list as they find them. For older students, a digital camera scavenger hunt is a great way to combine technology, art, and science.
If time is short, an alternative is to prepare cards, with each one containing a description of an object (for instance, "a straight stick as long as your hand" or "a leaf with smooth edges"). Then have students randomly draw one card and find an object in the garden that closely matches the descriptions.
What do students gain from a scavenger hunt, besides exercise, fresh air, and feelings of excitement and accomplishment? They'll also hone observation skills and the ability to connect written commands with action.
Play I Spy
Sit in a circle in the garden and ask students to take turns picking out a mystery item they can see from where they're seated. Ask each student to give one clue about the item they see (it's big, it's small). Then go around the circle and let each student ask the 'spy' one "yes" or "no" question to try and determine its identity. After everyone has asked a question, see if anyone can guess what it is.
Fill a Mystery Bag
Give each student a small paper bag. Take the class to the garden or schoolyard, and ask each student to find one small "mystery" item to put in his or her bag. After everyone has their items, sit in a circle and pass the bags around one at a time. Instruct students to reach inside the bag and feel the item without peeking at it. After everyone has had a chance to explore it, see if the class can identify what it is. This allows them to practice using senses other than sight. As an extension, after all the items are identified, you can compile them and ask students to think of different ways to sort and categorize them (living and not living, edible and not edible, by color, and so on). They will be practicing their classification skills without even knowing it!
Host a Bean Race
Plant a number of varieties of beans along the base of a trellis and tell the students this is the beginning of a bean race. Ask them to brainstorm different ways to determine which bean is 'winning.' Track the growth on a chart using their proposed measurement techniques. Challenge the students to find ways to interpret the rate of growth. To add to the sense of adventure, identify each bean using a racing number and use a blue, red, and white ribbon to award first, second, and third place every time you measure.
Create a Garden Letterbox Activity
Letterboxing is a popular "treasure hunting" adventure hobby. Click here for ideas on incorporating a letterboxing experience into your garden lessons.
Lead a Plant Identification Challenge
Identifying plants is like solving a mystery. By using a dichotomous key as a guide, students learn how to use clues (leaf size and shape, flower characteristics, bark and stem structure, etc.) to help find the solution to a problem (What's that plant?). Ask your local forest and parks department offices to recommend plant keys for your region. You can also find examples online such as Key to the Gymnosperms of the Southeastern U.S.
Provide Tools for Garden Care
Many kids don't consider gardening work. They gravitate toward the garden at recess to water, weed, and just enjoy the space. Provide garden tools, such as watering cans and weeding trowels, for them to use during recess. They'll come back to class with a sense of accomplishment and pride. Turning compost, either with tools or in a tumbling compost unit, provides good exercise, and kids might find buried 'treasure' (insects, worms) there, too!
Play Board and Card Games
For more information about the importance of play, check out the following links:
The Alliance for Childhood
The American Association for the Child's Right to Play