I'm LuAnn (Lu) Cooley. I'm a wife/mother/grandmother, educator/writer, entrepreneur/gardener involved in a variety of projects, not the least of which is conducting workshops and demonstrations on gardening, particularly with children. After almost 30 years of classroom teaching and government/corporate training, I jumped at the chance to do even more of the things I love-- gardening, hanging out with children & those who love them, and education. So for two years, I worked with the staff at Rockdale Career Academy to create an outdoor learning space for preschoolers. Our project was a garden at the high school.
The vision of the garden was to inspire and influence children, teens, and adults to learn in an outdoor space. The basic idea was to get kids & their adult companions out into the garden. And we came up with a variety of ways to do just that-- click on the photos for a description of our garden as it progressed.
The garden started as an oval track walkway that we split into sections. Ideally, you would choose a location, but this one was given to us based on a need to have plantings around a sidewalk built outside of the preschool classrooms of a career-focused high school.
River rock to catch water
The primary challenge of the garden was it's southside location. Georgia's hot sun bakes most plants and this garden struggled to get started.
Musical instruments far end
At the far end and along one side we installed outdoor musical instruments with low climbing rocks, and additional seating.
Musical instrument along wall.
Eventually, we added a sand box at one end that inspired creative play like a pirate searching for buried treasure or a paleontologist digging for fossils.
Rock corner with musical instruments
Low rocks are stepping stones, and provide climbing and sitting areas.
At one end, we put plants that attracted butterflies and bees.
Insectary with feeders
We also hung a seed birdfeeder and a hummingbird feeder.
Herb garden year 2
Next to this area, we planted perennial herbs like oregano, rosemary, thyme, lavendar, and annuals like sage, parsley (although both frequently overwinter in Georgia) to bring in a sensory experience (touching, tasting, smelling). Teachers could use this end for science, biology, botany, and observation.
The center section held trellises year round for vines and tomatoes to climb and became decorative during the holidays.
Peas can be planted early in the spring, come up quickly, and let the kids pick something they can eat straight from the garden.
Parent volunteers took turns watering, which the CEO of the school graciously provided. Although we used low-water needs plants, the first summer was rough.
Plants second year
By the second year, plants were firmly established, but still required daily watering from May through September.
Marigolds punctuated the spaces between plants as a way to keep destructive insects down, and mums and miniature pumpkins found their way into this area in the Fall just because.
Kids sized tools
Make sure there are plenty of digging tools for the kids to use regularly. A shovel, rake, clippers, hand trowel, and plenty of garden hose that wraps up neatly when not in use are indispensable adult tools, but to make the space usable for children, they need their own tools that fit their size.
The most important tip for a successful kids' garden is having tons of volunteers. The garden could not have begun or continued without the constant and consistent oversight and energy of the many volunteers.
Sidewalk with border
Since it was a flat space and built around a concrete sidewalk, accessibility was not a problem. Cut through spaces just big enough for little feet let the kids weave in and out of the garden without having to walk the entire length. The small retaining wall also became a balancing beam just high enough to walk, but still low enough that if they slipped, they didn't get hurt.
Along the sides we planted thornless blackberry, raspberry, and grape vines to disguise the fence, provide some shade, and to taste.
In front of the vines we planted drought-tolerant perennial flowers.
Perennials are a sound investment.
Flowers year 2
Perennials return year and year so the initial investment is the last expense, especially if they are drought-tolerant and native.
Drought-tolerant, native plants save money in the short and long-run.
Kids love flowers and should be encouraged to pick them so plant plenty and a variety so they'll flower all spring and fall.
In the middle, we planted vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans, radishes and anything the teachers particularly liked.
Vegetables can grow year-round with little effort.
Sunflowers are easy to grow, fun, and provide the students with evidence of the plant's cycle: seed to plant to flower to seed. The teachers cut them, use them for display, and let them go to seed, then roast the seeds.
Invest in perennials and multipliers like day lilies.
Mums and marigolds
We hung paint easels on the end of the fence so they could be artists, and added small outdoor kitchen on a patio so they could be chefs.
The high school shop class built benches that the preschoolers painted pulling functional art into the garden.
Patio umbrella table
Covered tables were a late addition for adults to sit out of the sun and watch as the kids explored. Teens and the preschool classrooms soon started eating lunch and/or snacks outside. It also became an area where teachers sat and read to the kids.
Buckets on fence
Pails, cans, bowls, cups, and watering buckets let them practice putting things in and taking them out, pouring, spilling, carrying, etc.-- all the same skills they learn inside without the restrictions of being in a confined space.
Caterpillars began showing up the first year.
Butterflies started showing up almost immediately.
Kids love to watch nature, especially if the adult is excited about it.
Monarch caterpillar viewing
Teachers are key to students being excited and parent becoming involved. If the teacher believes it is an important area and uses it, then he/she will take her students outside regularly, find ways to use the space, and develop and/or find lesson plans. She/he will also encourage parents to volunteer and set up a workday.
Volunteering in the garden is a family event so parents don't have to schedule where to put smaller children. They come with them.
Spaces to hide
Create tucked in spaces where kids can hide and explore.
Kids love color so if there's a space where you can add planters, make them festive and put tomatoes, herbs, or flowers.
Fences can be institutional or functional or artistic just by adding a flower box of drought-tolerant plants.
Small pumpkins can be weighed, carried, collected, a science experiment, an art project or anything in the child's imagination.
Large pumpkins are magical in the garden and children respond to them regardless of whether they grew in place or just appeared one day.
Flags and signage add another element.
Marigolds and pumpkins
Let kids pull pumpkins and marigold together in play. Touching is integral to becoming familiar with the natural world.
Pumpkins in wheelbarrow
The kids put all the pumpkins in the wheelbarrow and pushed them around.
Mums and marigolds
Mums can come back each year and add fall color to what could become a pretty drab garden.
Chard, pansies, pumpkins, cabbage
All gardens, but especially Fall gardens can be eclectic. Use your imagination and let the kids roam.
The sandbox with an inexpensive treasure chest becomes a prop for dramatic play. A garden doesn't have to be all about plants. It is a space for learning, pretending, and being outside.
Bottles on the windowsill
Teachers guide experiments such as putting layers of dirt in a bottle, filling it with water, watching how long it takes for things to settle, then letting them bake in the sun to see what happens next.
Children love holidays and the garden can reflect the festivities. Greenery goes a long way and is relatively inexpensive.
Candy cane trellis
Trellises half-wrapped in ribbon become candy canes.
A holiday tree with insect ornaments keeps the focus on nature, but brings a little bling to the garden. Let the kids decorate the first time and then over and over again.
Jingle bells add sensory and sparkle to the winter garden. Let the kids play with them so make sure they're sturdy.
Did I mention the importance of volunteers? In my experience, most parents were delighted to work in the garden and came en masse. While I was overseeing the installation, one teacher in particular took ownership of watching over the garden during the summer. By the second year, the year-round staff were also checking and helping tend during the summer without ever being asked.
After two years, I turned management of the garden over to the wonderful staff at RCA who continue to look after it and use it as an outdoor learning environment. Although I no longer work with them, I regularly volunteer at kids' gardens at elementary schools, non-profits, and service organizations. The Kids' Gardening workshop is based on my experiences and the resources I've come to value.
I started this site as a way to share my good and not so good experiences, to encourage the love of gardening, being outside and taking care of the Earth, and to cut down on the time you spend searching for resources.
10 Things You Might Want to Know About Kids Gardening
1. Not all kids like to get dirty, especially today. They get all freaked out so you may have to ease them into it and let them wash their hands as many times as necessary until they get used to the feel of dirt.
2. Plants die. A lot. Regardless of how much you spent on it or how well you took care of it. Toss it when the kids aren't around or use it as a lesson in recycling or have a little flower funeral. Everything and anything can be used as a teachable moment. Dead plants are part of the life cycle. Use it as a lesson.
3. Many kids (and adults) get spooked around bugs, especially bees and spiders. If you are one of those people do some kind of desensitization intervention work before you take children outside. Running around screaming and swatting at insects tends to set a really bad example and sometimes upsets the children.
4. Kids like things to be neat and tidy despite the mess they may leave around and this includes a garden. A garden is full of soil and plants and leaf litter, but never should it be filled with paper or trash or decaying food. Tools, toys and learning equipment should all have a place and just like the classroom, they should be put back in their place every day. Decaying food should be part of the compost and covered with dirt or a tarp so it doesn't attract rodents or other nasty critters or not there at all. Neat and clean makes the garden more pleasant and teaches good stewardship.
5. Children get attached to plants just like they do the classroom mascot. Don't be surprised if they get attached to a particular weed that you want to pull. It's all good. Let them take care of it.
6. Children like to pick flowers so plant extra and let them. This doesn't mean to let them destroy everything within reach. Some children haven't been taught self-discipline and deciding when the best time to pick a flower or which flower to pick is an exercise in self-discipline; however, sometimes the flower is just too good and the desire to share too strong.
7. Children love to climb, walk on edges/ledges and lines, skip, hop, jump, run, and dig. Make retaining walls low enough they can't hurt themselves when they balance on them. Make pathways wide enough and without roots and rocks to trip over so they can move freely. Add climbing features at a height they can test their abilities without getting hurt when they fall-- and they will fall. Keep an area open so digging doesn't damage plants.
8. Children love to be outside as long as they get to BE outside. Constantly preventing them from being active and with the plants only causes them to be tense and unhappy. It causes the plants to be tense and unhappy and nobody like a tense and unhappy plant. Relax.
9. A child's garden doesn't have to be elaborate, expensive or even outside. One of the best lessons at the preschool is butterfly coccoon hatching. For a small amount of money to buy the kit, the kids get to watch butterflies emerge and it's all indoors. I'm also a big fan of vermiculture. I use plastic tubs bought from the local big box store as my bins and they work really well.
10. There are more people gardening with children today than ever. The sheer number of resources can be overwhelming. If you already know how to garden, all you need is enthusiasm and the willingness to invite children into your space. If you don't currently garden, your local Extension Service has information, people, and even a hotline. They sponsor the Master Gardener program, trained volunteers who love to help. Call or email the Extension Service in your state or search the internet for one of their many documents on every kind of gardening and agricultural topic you can imagine.
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