With spring upon us, now is the time to get the children into gardening. Here are five ways to build their interest and to teach them about the natural world.
Education is best learned, in my opinion, through doing things and exploring and testing things out. The wisdom of a tinkerer surpasses the knowledge of any academic. Being able to do things is not the same as knowing what to do, but not how to do it.
Too many people have fallen for this, I think. Too many people were persuaded to go to university and to do degrees in things that, to be honest, don’t really matter. From my experience of the world, practical skills are the thing that matter more than any other. The ability to imagine an idea, to form it and hold it in your mind, and then to act on it with body and limb and to actually build it into something tangible: that is the element of entrepreneurship. It is how our ancestors developed the plough and the wheel. It is how they conceived to write and to build greater structures than any one being could hope to. Practical skills are the result of a real education.
From my point of view as a landscape gardener, who has always possessed an interest in the natural world, I feel it my duty to make sure the next generation don’t get suckered into the mistakes that many of my peers made in their education. Spring is a time to get out of the house and to indulge in the great adventures of the outdoors. Whilst the world of Swallows and Amazons might be a halcyon dream, (it’s far more realistic to imagine children of that period playing in bomb sites!) I think it behoves each of us to imbue the next generation with a love and experience of the outdoors.
With the swallows now returned to the skies above my home in Worcestershire, early April is the time to do this. So what activities can you use to get the next generation interested in nature (as well as developing those all important practical skills)?
This is a question that we have decided to answer on our blog this week. After consultation with clients, family and friends, we have developed our spring activity list. The aim of it is to entertain, educate, and teach practical skills as well. We have also tried to take differing elements of the garden for you to focus on, to broaden the education and to give experience of different outdoor aspects. Some aspects will suit children of different ages better than others of course.
1. Planting Sunflowers.
With their fast rate of growth, planting sun flowers is a healthy exercise for younger children. It can give them a sense of custodianship over the plant as they nurture it from seed to the first stages of growth and right the way through to August when they will be rewarded with a spectacular flower. I can still remember doing this myself when I was a child, which illustrates how influential it can be on a young mind. It’s also a very easy activity for adults to manage, and with zero risk on the practical side.
2. A spot of birding.
Every few weeks you should really clean the bird feeders in the garden. This is especially true after summer rain followed by sunshine – water and heat are excellent growing grounds for disease and feeding tables and cylinders can become a source of bacteria in your garden for your avian visitors. Supervision here is important if you are going to have your children help you in washing these items out: you will be using hot water and you will have to make sure that your children don’t put anything into their mouths that might contain micro-organisms. That said, this is also a learning opportunity to show them what exists ‘beyond what they can see,’ and why it is so important to keep things clean.
Once these items have been cleaned and dried, I would encourage your children to make a spotter’s guide to the birds they have seen in their garden. The object of this is to teach observation and identification of certain birds, and this is an activity that can be kept up even on rainy days – thanks to the Internet. In fact, visual identification is only a small part of the skills of birding: thanks to most smartphones, there are apps available that can help you to identify birds by their song alone. It’s not actually that hard: pick some birds that are regular visitors to your garden, and replay the songs back to them as they watch them from behind the window: robins, great tits, wrens, blackbirds, and even the odd screaming corvid are all quite easily recognisable. You will have opened up their eyes (and their ears) to a new world.
In fact, if you are out in the garden a lot, then you will most likely have a friendly robin that watches you whilst you work, waiting for you to turn the earth and then swoop in on an exposed worm. Once, I had this situation whilst working on a client’s garden, landscaping their back lawn and adding a bed along one side. Frequently, the robin would watch me work, never far from where I toiled. And so I started to offer up some dried meal worm, first placing it on the ground close to me, and encouraging its boldness as, gradually it came closer and closer. Then, after only two or three days of this, I held some meal worm in the flat of my hand. The robin flew over and picked it up and flew away again. That is the stuff of enchantment to children!
(I have to admit a slight clanger here from my early days of birding. I heard a hideous shrieking from high up in a pine tree and wondered what species of bird it was. Asking a wise old relative, I was informed it was a squirrel. I had a lot to learn! I suppose the real moral here is that if I can do it, then so can you!)
3. Be subversive: teach health and safety!
With the winter now over, spring is a time for getting to grips with the garden. That means kicking open the shed door and getting all of last year’s equipment ‘garden-ready.’ Take stock of what you have amongst your tools, of what condition they are in and if any need maintenance – it will also be a good way of teaching older children how to handle these items safely. Likewise, check all the dates and conditions of any garden weed killers or plant feed you have left over from last year: sometimes they don’t age well and it might be better disposing of old products.
4. Helping on the allotment.
If you grow any kind of vegetables at home or in an allotment then this is an ideal way to get children interested in not just the natural world, but actually about the benefits of growing their own food and appreciating where it comes from. In earlier articles I have banged on (to the point of exhaustion), about how dangerous I think it is that too many people these days don’t know where their food comes from, or understand the impact on quality and sustainability that the journey from field to plate endures due to mass production, but anything that gets the younger generation interested in food and planting is good for them and good for the environment.
5. Helping the Queen.
No one can fail to have heard of the plight of the bee population. Numbers are falling, and diseases are spreading. It is only now becoming apparent that without nature’s pollinators, the food we take for granted would simply not exist: you can’t remove the main pollinator out of the system. Whilst suggesting that everyone get a hive is slightly unrealistic, it should be the case that gardeners should plant the right variety to ensure that the bees get a good source of sustenance from spring through to late summer. This means mixing up your plants; in April that means Rosemary and Bluebells, in May and June it will mean Tyne and Honeysuckle, and in July and August it means Buddleias, Lavender, and, of course, Sunflowers.
I hope these five ideas have given you inspiration to get out there and get the children involved in the world of the garden. As an education, it is second to none.