Written by Rose Collins (Bachelor of Teaching- Early Childhood) & niece of Angus Stewart.

The current times we are living in are challenging us all in so many different ways and on many different levels. I believe our own outdoor space (no matter how big or small) can provide great learning experiences, some respite and a whole lot more!

With many schools closing and households going into lockdown, those of us with children are finding that we have to take on lots of different roles, including that of the teacher. I know many people are overwhelmed at the task and feeling like they must create a “school like” environment within the home. No one wants their children to fall behind or miss out on education and learning. Structured desk activities definitely have their place and play a role, but there’s also ample learning opportunities to be had in the garden.

Children learn best when they are interested and engaged. Gardens and outdoor spaces are generally full of interesting things ….many of which are often overlooked by adult eyes. When we are outside, we are exposed to the elements. We may feel the warmth of the sun, the wind/breeze, the coolness of the air or even rain on our skin. Our senses are heightened by the things around us. Cloud formations, rainbows in the sky, birds singing, insects chirping etc . When we are outside we can see and hear the world differently than we do inside our homes. Stepping outside opens us up to some of the things going on around us. Depending on where you live, each of us will experience something different. We may hear cars driving past, neighbours chatting, cows mooing, chickens clucking, waves breaking on the shore, the flow of a river, dogs barking, cats fighting. Whether you live in suburbia, on a farm or in a busy, bustling city, your outdoor space has the potential to grab your child’s interest. Invite your child to step outside and listen. Encourage them to listen to the sounds they hear both close and distant. Ask your child to write down or draw what they are hearing and challenge them to make the list as long as they can. If you would like to, you can use a timer for this. A timer will also help bring maths into the learning experience and increase awareness of time. At the end of the activity, talk to your child about the things they heard. Choose one from the list to use in creative writing. For example, if you heard a bird chirping you could write a story based around a bird and it’s life. If you heard a car driving past, make up a story about who was driving it and where they were going. Give your child some extra creative ideas and encourage them to think outside the box a little. Encourage your child to draw pictures to go with the story. Isn’t it amazing the learning opportunities that have just been created with 5-10 minutes of outside time?

Now let’s look at the ways we can create learning from getting those hands dirty! There’s no better way to keep children engaged in an activity than allowing them to become fully immersed in it. There is so much to be gained from hands on learning. Imagine for instance that you had never seen or grown a real living sunflower plant in your life. Someone has you sitting at a desk and they want to teach you all about sunflowers. They could tell you that sunflowers are large and yellow and the middle of the flower produces edible seeds. You can picture the flower in your mind and your brain might draw on previous knowledge, perhaps of pictures you have seen. The information is processed by your brain and now you ‘know’ all about sunflowers. But what if you could ‘experience’ a sunflower through hands on learning? You get some seeds and plant them in the garden or a pot following the instructions on the packet. You care for the seed (provide sun and adequate water) for a few weeks and suddenly you see a sprout. The sprout turns into a plant, the plant begins to grow. It gets bigger and bigger. In fact it gets so tall that you marvel at the height of it, comparing it to the height of yourself and other objects around. You might notice things about the plant like how it has little hairs on the stem, the texture and shape of the leaves, whether or not insects are visiting it and how much it grows each day/week. Your plant will grow a flower head and this will be an exciting day! The bright yellow flower will get bigger and bigger. You will notice that it rotates to face the sun and you will see the seeds forming in the centre of it. You will eventually be able to harvest the seeds, take the husks off and eat them, or use them in cooking. The learning experiences that can come from this process are meaningful and when ever someone mentions a sunflower, your brain will come alive with knowledge and experience, rather than just a flat 2-D image of something you have been told about.There are all sorts of plants you could choose for this excercise, with children it is good to choose readily available ones that will grow quickly and in the right season. Deciduous trees are also a good long term observational exercise.

The hands on learning that can be found within the garden setting will help open your child’s world. Growing edible produce and getting your children involved in the process from start to finish provides so many learning opportunities. Research with your child about the kinds of foods you might be able to grow. Ask them what they would like to grow and eat. During this process talk to them about the nutritional value of fruit, vegetables and herbs. It’s also a good chance to educate your children about pesticides and herbicides that are used in commercial farming practices and how by growing food at home, we know that it has no hidden nasties. There are lots of edible plants that are perfect for beginners and very easy to grow. Cherry tomatoes, parsley, climbing beans and herbs are wonderful choices to start with. Most of these can also be grown in hanging baskets, pots or containers, so if you have very limited space, don’t be disheartened. Even if you start with one hanging basket of thyme or mint, just to test the waters its a step in the right direction. Herbs can provide a wonderful sensory experience for children. When they rub the herbs they will produce beautiful aromatics and quite often children will not be able to resist tasting them. I know with my own children (aged 6 and 9) if they have had a hand in helping grow an edible, they will taste it once it’s ready. For example, my children never liked beans until they grew their own! Only two days ago they walked around the garden with bowls and came back with beans, cherry tomatoes and mint. I watched on as they ate the lot! The food had meaning for them, but not only this, it tasted so much better than the supermarket alternative! There’s nothing quite like the taste of home grown produce. This can also spark discussions with your child about the differences between home grown and supermarket food. What are some things that are different? What are some things that are the same. Teach your children about food miles and food footsteps. Talk about how the farmer grows the produce, then it must be harvested and transported from the farm to the warehouse to the supermarket. Then we have to go to the shop, buy the food and bring it home. Compare that to growing your own! The miles are turned into footsteps. It’s a wonderful thing to unlock these thoughts in the mind of a child and help them to see that there are alternative ways of doing things.

When you involve your children in the garden, it’s amazing to see the kinds of learning experiences that can take place. When dealing with soil and plant pots, you can encourage your child to estimate. How many scoops of soil will it take to fill this plant pot? You estimate and then we will count and see. If you have plant pots of different sizes you can talk about volume and the amount of soil each one can hold. Encourage your child to put them in order form smallest to largest and vice versa. Which one weighs the most? Which one is the lightest? What if we fill two pots that are the same size with different substances? One with soil and one with wood chip. Would they weigh the same?  If you are planting up a garden bed with different varieties, there will be lots of good maths challenges involved. Measuring the bed, work out how many square metres? Plan the row sizes as well as the spacing, how many of each seed should be planted to the row? If different seeds need different spacing, how does that affect the number per row? If we have x number of seeds to start and we plant y number, how many left? These are just a few examples. Let your imagination be the limit!

Another idea, which is fun and provides lots of educational opportunities is creating a mini garden with your child/ren. All you need is a pot, some soil, seeds, plants or cuttings and anything else you want to add. My children and I created a mini garden together using items we already had around the house. I was lucky enough to score a few terracotta pots that someone had left out for council pick up a few weeks ago. With this project, my aim was to think outside the box and be resourceful and creative with what we had here at home. We had an empty tomato sauce bottle, which I cut in half and also cut an archway door. We used a hot glue gun to stick paper bark on the outside of it to create a little hut. We collected sticks form the back yard and used string to tie them together to make little ladders and fences. A great activity to help build fine motor skills, as well as a sense of accomplishment from the finished product. We then cut some wood rounds and the children loved using a hand saw. We used measurement and talked about safety while doing this. We then went on a little walk, where I encouraged the children to each find one thing to add to the garden. They were getting physical activity through the walk, vitamin D from the sunshine and using their observation skills as they searched for their items. My son found an arch shape stick and my daughter found a smooth stone. Then it was time to go home and put all our hand made items along with the collected items in a pile on the table. The children helped chose the pot to use and then harvested some worm castings from the worm farm to mix with the soil to add into the pot. The children helped gather succulent cuttings form the garden and pull up some native violet runners from the grass. We were now ready to assemble the miniature garden. I let the children do it all and it was wonderful to watch their placement of objects and plants and listen to the kinds of conversations they were carrying out as they worked together. There were some minor disputes about where certain things should go, but I did not interrupt their processes as this is how children learn to navigate other people! It was amazing to watch their negotiation skills and how they explained to each other why something needed to be in a particular spot if the other one was disagreeing. In the end they put together a beautiful little garden, which they are both proud of. My children will care for the garden and help it grow, which I’m sure they will be very willing to do because they created it! Once the cuttings grow roots, they can use the garden for imaginative play. I’m certain it will provide them with their own little world. A place to play and express themselves. A little oasis where they are in control and can forget about the worries and pressures that the outside world can sometimes present.