As we strive to create a healthier, more sustainable future for the world it is crucial that we foster our children’s connection to nature. Unfortunately, this comes at the very same time that technology threatens to take over our lives – a fact that anyone who has seen a teen with an iPhone can attest. So, how can we encourage kids to engage with their environment? Perhaps one answer can be found at the home of two Massachusetts scientists, who have been experimenting with a living laboratory in their small, suburban backyard. The couple have a strong background in molecular biology, and have designed a space that functions as a small, relatively self-sustaining ecosystem, which they use as an al fresco classroom – a garden science lab – for their three children.
The garden, was designed to invite wildlife and the encroaching woodlands into the backyard, encouraging a seamless flow between nature and the suburban household. Many of the plant species are native to the area, requiring minimal maintenance. The garden revolves around its small pond, complete with koi fish, frogs and a snake, while birds linger and nest in branches overhead. Tall evergreens line the yard, hiding the neighboring properties from sight and drawing the eye outward, over the garden and into the woods.
Tom Wilhelm from A Blade of Grass, the designer of the garden, took the traditional elements of a children’s garden, small benches, thick shrubbery, hidden places to explore, and imbued each with unique properties to enhance learning. Wilhelm explained that these moments can be as simple as including butterfly bush or fruit-bearing shrubs that attract birds, thereby allowing children to observe the mutualism between flora and fauna. They can also be somewhat more complex, such as encouraging children to collect and study the tadpoles in a pond, or the dragonfly eggs floating near the water’s surface.
The focus of an educational garden is to promote an appreciation for nature and empathy for the creatures it shelters, as well as an understanding that everything is connected. The garden, therefore, becomes a microcosm for the world’s environment as a whole. Making a garden a place to run, a place to hide, a place to climb and a place to learn, even where space is limited, will encourage children to embrace the outdoors and nurture it. We can only hope they will carry this perspective with them into adulthood.
It is inspiring to think of all the lessons that can be learned in and through a garden. While most of the learning that takes place in outdoor gardens is experiential, educational gardens can serve as great ways to start conversations on a variety of topics.
A few ideas for garden science lab lessons include, but are certainly not limited to:
- Science: conservation, evolution, seasons, food (buying locally, pesticides, organic), symbiosis.
- Horticulture: tending particular plants (shade v. sunlight, varying soil types, water regulation), photosynthesis, plant identification.
- Literature: as simple as reading outdoors on a shaded bench, or as creative as designing a Victorian-themed garden and reading classics.
- Art: paint or draw the creatures, plants, and structures in the garden, design new paths/flower beds, create topiaries.
- Nature & Wildlife: Ecology, habitat maintenance, insects and pollinators.
- Business: Many garden products can be sold at local farmers markets giving kids an opportunity to plan small businesses that go beyond the lemonade stand.
Tips for Making Your own Garden Science Lab:
- Sometimes the best learning is experiential. Gardens that include interactive elements (like a koi pond or a vegetable patch) encourage kids to learn through observation and take a personal interest in various plants or animals. Alternatively, taking a child to a nursery and asking them to pick a flower to grow and tend (ideally from a seed) gives them responsibility and fosters attachment. Herbs are good because they encourage touching, smelling, and tasting. If the plant is a vegetable, it can lead to conversations about where food comes from, buying locally, etc.
- Choose plants or features that will attract a variety of wildlife. Hang bird feeders with breed-specific feed (or plant a shrub with berries), and see how many varieties you can identify. Plant bright, tubular flowers for hummingbirds and butterflies.
- Do prior research. Know what you want or need beforehand, and what you hope the garden will teach your children, or allow them to discover on their own. Decide whether you want largely native species, so kids can recognize them at home or away, or include features that suit your educational goals.
- Don’t assume you need a large space to make a big impact. This suburban garden in Newton, MA, is only several thousand square feet.
- Gardens are not static. They change over time in terms of structure and function, so don’t be afraid to tweak either. An educational garden can evolve into a place to read or reflect as children age.
As the editor of this website, my job is mostly to bring ideas together. As they flow in from around the garden world, I get to fill in the blanks to make stories come to life here – which is how I found myself bribing my son to allow me to photograph him running through someone else’s garden. In the end, I didn’t have to pay up – because the koi pond distracted and entertained him for as long as I needed (and then some) and he was having so much fun in this garden science lab that he forgot about not wanting to help. We both loved this garden – there are no garish plastic toys, rather this garden functions as a small, relatively self-sustaining ecosystem, which the owners use as a beautiful al fresco classroom. – Rochelle