Herbal Adventures: Garden Activities for Children

Herbs…the green flecks in spaghetti sauce, the soothing late night teas, the dried mixtures that keep the bathroom air fresh. But did you know that many prescription medicines contain drugs derived from natural herbs? Or that many perfumes and other fragrances are made from the oils in herbs?

Herbs have been used for at least 5,000 years by all cultures for cooking, medicine, crafts, and cosmetics. Many herbs are easy to raise in the classroom. Herbs have such rich histories and so many uses that they can provide an enticing, multi-sensory theme for learning science concepts and skills, studying other cultures, and tying in subjects across the curriculum.

Activities: What Makes an Herb an Herb?

Commonly, “herb” refers to any plant or plant part valued for its medicinal, savory, or aromatic qualities. In many cases, herbs’ oils and compounds that cause healing, good flavors, or aromas, are merely adaptations that help the particular plant survive in its environment. Humans take advantage of these plant adaptations for our own uses much as we take advantage of flowers (adaptations for pollination) for their beauty.

Consider doing some activities to engage your students in identifying some of the characteristics that make an herb an herb. Some examples follow:

  • Have students use their senses to compare six potted plants including, for instance, a spider plant, parsley, jade, rosemary, lettuce, and thyme. Then ask them to organize the plants into groups with similar attributes, and let other classmates guess how the groups were categorized.
  • Have students taste six edible leaves-spinach, basil, lettuce, rosemary, thyme, and cabbage-and describe the tastes of each. Ask: Which ones might you eat a bowl of? Why or why not? How could you imagine using the others?
  • Invite students to try to match aromas of fresh herbs with dried.
  • Share with students the fact that herbs contain oils which create the odors and flavors we experience. After smelling several herbs, have students guess how such odors might help the plants survive in their environment? (Hint: the odors can both attract helpful insects and repel “pests.”)

Growing Classroom Herbs

Many herbs can be easily grown in a classroom light garden or windowsill, started from seeds, cuttings, or plants. Local nurseries, friends’ gardens, and catalogs are good sources for herb seeds and plants.

…from seeds… Plant herb seeds in the same soilless potting mix you use for other indoor plants or plant them in a mixture of 1/3 sand, 1/3 peat moss, and 1/3 soil. Most herb seeds are small and should be planted no more than 1/4-inch deep in moist soil or sprinkled on the top of the soil and covered lightly with potting mix. You can have children mix tiny seeds with a small amount of sand to make them easier to sprinkle over the soil. Mist the soil, and cover containers with plastic to keep seeds moist until they germinate. To give herb plants room to grow to maturity, thin seedlings to one per 4″ container or 2 plants per 6″ container.

…from cuttings… Some herbs are quicker and easier to start from cuttings than from seeds. To take cuttings, snip healthy stems 3-4 inches from the growing tip. Remove leaves from the lower half of the cutting, and plant the cutting in a soilless mix. Water gently and cover the container with a plastic bag until new top growth appears.

…from plants… Many herbs can be purchased from nurseries as young plants, or dug, particularly in the spring, from the new shoots emerging from mature plants outdoors.

Mothers’ Day Herb Books

Each fifth grader in Vermont teacher Pat Pierce’s class got to adopt-an-herb to raise in their GrowLab. Students read seed package directions to discover how to plant and care for their herbs, made ongoing observations, and drawings, and researched history, folklore, medicinal, and culinary uses. “The kids were so personally attached to their herbs,” said Pat. “They’d want to keep them on their desks, and were intrigued with the smells, textures, flavors.” The students then went through a series of recipe books to find recipes with their particular herbs. Each student created a book which included drawings, observations, research reports, and a variety of recipes for his or her herb. The books and plants made informative, aromatic Mothers’ Day gifts.

Herbs Across the Curriculum

There are endless opportunities to tie language arts, math, social studies, science skills, art, and more in with an herb unit. Reflect on some of the varied uses, past, and present, for herbs and consider how you might incorporate them into engaging cross-disciplinary activities. Some examples follow:

  • Explore the use of herbs in different cultures and cook an international meal.
  • Create a class cookbook of your favorite herb recipes.
  • Cook two batches of spaghetti sauce, one with and one without herbs. Compare the tastes.
  • Make aromatic herbal “sachets” or catnip toys from dried herbs in fabric pouches.
  • Research and practice some herbal dyeing in your classroom. Indoor garden herbs that are good for dyeing include catnip, marigolds, marjoram, morning glories, parsley, rosemary, sage, and zinnias.
  • Devise ways to capture and retain the smell of one of your fresh herbs.
  • Investigate whether cats really go wild over catnip. Grow some of this mint, then design a fair test to see if cats prefer it to other members of the mint family like peppermint, spearmint, and basil.
  • Design a “smell test” using aromatic herbs to compare the abilities of different people to discriminate among them.
  • Find out about the culinary, cosmetic, and craft uses of herbs by people in a time period or culture you’re studying. For example Pilgrims, Pioneer Days, Native American Life, Ancient Greece, the Middle Ages, the Victorian Era, etc.
  • Herbs have been used for thousands of years to perfume our bodies and homes. They’re used to cleanse, protect, and invigorate our skin and hair. Have students try some of the following:
  • Survey soaps, shampoo, cosmetics, lotions in stores or in the house to identify herbal ingredients.
  • Make scented oils by soaking fresh blossoms or leaves of herbs such as mints, lavender, or rose in vegetable oil. Remove the herbs after 24 hours and replace with fresh herbs. Continue this each day for a week. You’ll have a lightly scented oil for skin and bath.
  • Write to or visit a company that makes natural cosmetics to find out more about what herbs are being used today.
  • In the late 1800s, chemists began isolating the chemicals in plants used for thousands of years by people to promote healing. Although many of these active chemicals are now created synthetically, new substances are constantly being found in plants and herbal remedies still used in some cultures. They’re also being discovered in places such as diverse tropical rainforests.
  • Create your own herbal recipes to cure common maladies, e.g., writers’ cramp from too much homework.
  • If the opportunity arises, devise a “fair test” to compare the effects of the juices of the aloe plant on burns to those of a commercially-made lotion.
  • Interview a pharmacist to find out which medicines used today are made from plants.

Herbal Sleuths

“Before planting an outdoor herb garden, I had my second, third, and fourth graders choose projects on different uses of herbs,” says Perryville, MO, teacher Sharon Hayden. She first suggested several broad project areas such as investigating herbs that were used in healing or exploring culinary uses of herbs in other countries. Small student groups then chose one broad topic or herb and generated questions they’d like to investigate more thoroughly.

“As students planned and conducted their investigations, they sought information from a range of resources,” notes Sharon. “These included pharmacists and nurses, the Internet, families, and books.” One group wanted to examine whether homegrown aloe or commercial burn creams would more effectively soothe burns. When another teacher burned herself on a stove, the team went into action. “When I questioned them about how they would accurately assess the effectiveness of different treatments,” describes Sharon, “they realized that they had to develop a process for describing and judging the treatments’ impacts.” This prompted students to create a visual rating system, using a descriptive scale from one to five, then rating the affected area each day.

One group wondered whether catnip is really more tantalizing to cats than other herbs (thyme and oregano, for instance). They designed and created toys, then stuffed some of them with catnip and some with the other herbs they’d grown. “Although we didn’t have time for a ‘fair test,’ one student plans to test these with her cat during the summer, documenting its reactions to each toy,” explains Sharon.

Another group identified the herbs and spices in recipes from a number of countries, then looked for patterns in recipes coming from different regions. “By growing herbs and experimenting with their myriad uses,” concludes Sharon, “students developed a deeper understanding of what herbs are, beyond the stuff that Mom shakes from bottles.”

Herb or Spice?

When botanists use the term herbaceous, they mean a plant that is soft-stemmed, with little woody tissue. But in culinary and other ethnobotanical uses, herbs are usually defined as plants of temperate climates whose leaves are harvested for use. It can get confusing: Although most are nonwoody, some woody plants like rosemary, whose leaves we use, are herbs in a culinary sense.

Invite students to rub the leaves of aromatic herbs to break microscopic oil glands and release their fragrance. Then ask students to imagine why these plants might have evolved with these distinct aromas and flavors. (Botanists believe that they are largely a defense against being eaten by herbivores.) Ask students to brainstorm common herbs in which we eat both the leaves and the seeds (e.g., dill).

Spices, on the other hand, are mainly tropical plants in which we typically use the roots (ginger), fruits (vanilla pods), flowers (cloves), seeds (pepper), or bark (cinnamon).

Consider having students identify the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, which roughly separate tropical and temperate zones, and compare climate factors in both zones. Invite them to brainstorm which popular flavoring is neither an herb nor a spice. (Salt is a mineral not derived from a plant!)

Creating a Cultural Connection

The school’s name, Grandview U’uqinak’uuh Community School, reflects the region’s rich cultural heritage. Now, the “Spirit of Nature” schoolyard proudly does the same. Graduate education student Illene Pevec and landscape architecture student Tracy Penner brought together students, parents, teachers, and community members to turn an underused, muddy, 1-acre field into a multigenerational, award-winning garden that celebrates and preserves local cultural history.

Building a Community of Knowledge

In search of a graduate research project, Illene turned to Grandview U’uqinak’uuh Community School with the idea of developing a garden. After proposing the idea to administrators and conducting extensive research, she wrote a grant to the Parks Department. Illene knew she needed help. Tracy, who was finishing her degree in landscape architecture, was interested. Equipped with practical knowledge and bountiful enthusiasm, the two women crafted a plan.

First, Tracy and Illene banded together with the school principal and a lead teacher who would facilitate meetings with other Grandview teachers, staff, and students. They invited several potential advisors to participate, including landscape architects, a native plant expert, an architect, and the grounds supervisor. Next, they conducted a site inventory. This included reviewing sewer, drainage, and underground utility plans; old maps; school architecture drawings; and neighborhood aerial photographs to compile information on soil type, water availability, and weather conditions.

Recognizing the importance of including students, teachers, parents, and other community members in the design process, Tracy and Illene held several workshops. The student workshops came first. Working in groups of six, students created maps representing how they used the schoolyard and built three-dimensional models of their dream gardens using sand trays and natural objects. “Almost every student requested a stream, pond, and waterfall,” recalls Tracy. At the end of the workshop, students went home with surveys for their parents to complete.

Next, the two champions held separate teacher/staff and community planning workshops. At Grandview, the sessions were part of the school meeting agenda. To advertise the community workshop, the two sent home notices with students and hung posters around the neighborhood. Each workshop began with a brainstorming session on important aspects of a schoolyard, issues to overcome, and garden design. Teams were asked to prioritize the brainstormed list. Finally, the whole group conducted a “hot-dotting” exercise to vote for their preferences. Each participant received seven dots representing $1,000 each to place next to the features on which they would prefer to spend their money. The tabulated results informed the final design. Lacking postage funds, the organizers hand-delivered surveys to neighbors to solicit additional input.

Tracy used the input to draft three plans for the schoolyard. After presenting them to the grounds supervisor, she revised and presented them to Grandview teachers and staff. Finally, she consolidated the three plans into one master plan and took it to the school board for approval.

A Design That Celebrates Culture

“Every child, staff member, and interested community member participated in envisioning and designing the school grounds,” recalls Illene. The site, as a result, reflects the neighborhood population. The area, now densely populated and crowded with low-income housing, once belonged to three First Nations groups: the Musqueam, the Burrard, and the Squamish. Fifty percent of the community is of First Nations heritage, though many are disconnected from the history and culture of their ancestors. The plant life and architectural design of the Spirit of Nature schoolyard reconnect students and community members to the people who influenced the character of their surroundings.

The covered outdoor classroom, designed in the style of a traditional Musqueam longhouse, sits in the center of the schoolyard with the entrances facing north and south. This orientation was preferred because it takes full advantage of the sun yet is protected from winter winds. Fitting up to 40 people, it is “a community gathering place for outdoor learning and celebration,” says Tracy. It provides a sheltered place to read, conduct classes, watch performances, and hold community celebrations. In fact, chiefs from all three First Nations attended the longhouse dedication ceremony, in which students participated in traditional cultural activities. The Coast Salish (a group that includes the Musqueam) are known for their skillful weaving. Recognizing this as a dying art form, the University of British Colombia established the Museum of Anthropology to preserve and display coastal arts and crafts. Tracy and the students spent hours at the museum, researching and gaining inspiration for the garden design. During a field trip there, sixth and seventh graders studied traditional weaving patterns. They designed their own patterns on graph paper and then used these patterns to lay bricks in the schoolyard patio.

At the other end of the garden site, a concrete wall (not pictured on map) stood in stark contrast to the lush green life springing up around it. “We knew we needed to somehow give life to that huge concrete wall, and the theme should somehow connect the school, garden, and community,” explains Tracy. A local artist met with students and brainstormed ideas about what lives in and around rivers in British Colombia. He incorporated their ideas into a mural and transferred it to the wall. Students painted the “River of Life” mural, which now prominently illustrates the importance of water as a source of life.

Discovering People/Plant Connections

“Information about the traditional use of native plants by aboriginal people in this region has almost been lost,” explains Illene. “The idea behind the ethnobotanical garden is to encourage elders who know about these plants to share their information with others.” A group of native elders and young adults planned this garden, and teachers and students planted it. Now families can come to the schoolyard to learn the names and uses of indigenous plants from First Nations herbalists. Illene has even developed curriculum materials to help students learn about these plants, uses, and folklore.

The personal impact that this project has had on students is as important as what it’s taught them about their cultural heritage. “They have seen the real, physical results of planning and carrying out their plans and felt the pride that comes with such success,” explains Tracy. “They have transformed their soggy, barren field into a vital neighborhood backyard.”

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