Kids are naturally curious. In school, curiosity is often stifled. It’s not that teachers don’t want curious kids; it’s just that there are many other things, like state-mandated goals, to meet. This leads to lots of homework and little time for curiosity. Thus spring break, with no school and no homework, is the perfect time to encourage kid curiosity. I advocate getting kids to investigate dirt and the plants that grow in it.
So that curiosity does not run amok, be sure to lay down some ground rules first.
No digging up landscape plants: Set aside only a certain portion of the yard for messy kid activities. Insist their body and feet are clean before they come in. Things like that.
Start with dirt and water: Let kids make mud pies. Encourage them to watch the water run down slopes (Frank Lloyd Wright spent hours doing this as a child.). Move from soil alone to soil that grows plants.
Grow a pizza garden: To grow the herbs that flavor pizzas, all you need is a large pot, some potting soil, and herbs from a nursery. This is a good project for young children who might not necessarily have the patience or comprehension for starting plants from seed. This is also a good project for parents with “brown” thumbs. Herbs have been abused by human growers for 6,000 years. The ones that are left alive are really tolerant of human neglect.
Go shopping for your pizza garden with your kids. Let them gently rub one herb in the nursery and then have them smell their finger. Does it smell like something in pizza? Move to the next herb and use a different finger. Then you can compare smells. Hint: you are looking for oregano, basil, and rosemary (You can add thyme as well.). All of these can grow in one, big pot together. Put the tall basil in the center.
Grow a Gourd: Gourds offer an opportunity for kids to grow, harvest, be creative artists and give gifts. Birdhouse and dipper gourds grow well here, and now is the ideal time of year to plant gourds!
Find a spot in the garden where gourd vines can climb. A chain-link fence works well, or you can hang coarse twine from the eaves for climbing. Better yet, grow the gourds over an arbor. A kid-high arbor makes a fun, secret cave to hide in.
Soak gourd seeds overnight for better sprouting success. Then plant them in the soil. Keep the seeds and young baby plants well-watered. Once they are older, watch for the yellow flowers that turn into green gourds. The gourds ripen to brown on the vine, and should be ready to harvest in two to four months.
Dried gourds can make bowls, birdhouses or baskets. Help the kids cut into one with a small saw. Clean out the seeds and save some for next year. Decorate the gourds with acrylic or tempera paints. Tempera paint will stick to gourds better if you add one-quarter volume of white glue to the paint.
One plant grows many gourds, so there will be plenty to give away. Giving to others is an important developmental step for children. Giving a gift that they grew themselves is an experience unparalleled by any other a child can have.
Kids do need an opportunity to get messy, try new things and investigate the world. Learning to safely investigate the world is a critical step in learning to be an independent, creative and innovative thinker. Encourage your children to wonder and marvel. Encourage them to investigate and play. Foster fun and permit kids to make excited noises as they discover things. Encourage them to be kids.
Dr. Soule’s latest book, “Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today” ($14.95), is now available. This 112-page book covers herbs that grow well in our area. These herbs were either introduced to our area by Father Kino or were used here by natives and introduced to Father Kino once he arrived. Copies of the book will be available in area bookstores and nurseries in the coming weeks. To sign up for notifications, send your e-mail address to firstname.lastname@example.org.