Archives For Youth Education

The Garden is a great place for people of all ages to learn to about plants and the natural world. These posts relate to programs offered for children and youth, but also offer educational information for the adults in their lives as well.

Thanksgiving is here again, and we at the Chicago Botanic Garden are thankful for all the pollinators who make our food possible, every day, around the world. Bats, bees, butterflies, birds, and more pollinate plants that create one-third of the food we eat.

As you enjoy a meal with friends and family, take a moment to say thanks for the little things that make such a big difference—pollinators!

Draw and color the foods you are eating at your feast in the center of your plate on our placemat. Check the answer key to see who pollinated them.Instructions: Click on the image above to download our placemat to enjoy with your feast.

The ideal printing size is tabloid (11 x 17 inches). Letter size paper (8.5 x 11 inches) will also work if you choose “fit to page” when printing.

Draw and color the foods you are eating on our placemat. Check the answer key to see who pollinated them. Then, fill the Thanksgiving plate by drawing and coloring the foods—fruits, vegetables, and spices—that were brought to you by pollinators.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Why cooking classes? I’ll tell you. I recently watched my 14-year-old “honor roll student” completely botch the job of making herself soup for lunch. I’m not talking about homemade soup; this was a can of tomato soup. Yes, a can of soup

PHOTO: A girl with a bag over her head, holding a pot in her right hand, a whisk in her left.

What is a teenager to do without any cooking skills?

She was stymied when she couldn’t find the directions on the label—you know, where it says, “Mix soup + one can water.” She fumbled with the can opener. She picked out the wrong size pot. I suggested that she use a whisk to break up the lumps, and her face tensed in an expression of utter despair (oh, teen drama!) until I pointed to the container of utensils within reach next to the stove. By this time, the unincorporated tomato puree was boiling over in a watery grave because she had the heat set too high. 

This is largely my fault for not involving her in the kitchen more. It has been challenging to muster the patience to teach my kids domestic skills that seem easier to do myself. I started thinking about all the things my daughter has missed by not having any good cooking lessons: understanding cooking terms, skills with tools and materials, mastery of any food preparation processes, and confidence in the kitchen, not to mention being able to make a hot meal for herself. A quick search on the web confirmed my fears. Over the last decade, lots of people have written about why we need to teach kids how to cook. Allow me to summarize the list of benefits:

Health: Studies show that when kids learn to prepare food, they are more likely to try new foods, and also to be open to making healthier food choices.

Math: We use all kinds of math in the kitchen: counting items, estimating volumes, measuring weight and volume, and keeping track of time.

Reading: Following a recipe requires reading and understanding cooking vocabulary.

Safety: Learning about safe kitchen practices could prevent a miserable experience with cuts, burns, or microbes and food poisoning.

Self-Esteem: Mastering skills such as mixing, chopping, and kneading requires practice, and so it builds self-confidence. When we learn to perfect particular dishes, we feel a sense of ownership and accomplishment.

Science: Cooking has many science applications: combining different ingredients involves working with chemical reactions; cutting up ingredients reveals the physical structures of plants, animals, and fungus. 

Social Studies: Cooking is linked to culture and tradition, and so there is a connection to history and social studies. 

Social Skills: Communication skills are essential when learning to cook. If there is one thing food TV shows have shown us, it’s that people love to talk about food as much as they enjoy eating it, and food gives shy kids something interesting to talk about.

Clearly, I have failed my daughter, but I suspect I’m not the only parent in this sinking gravy boat.

PHOTO: The pumkin pie ingredients are all on the counter, and two middle school girls are taking turns adding ingredients to the bowl.

Making a pumpkin pie requires lots of academic skills: reading, measuring, following directions, and even social skills.

And so, to address this deficiency in our children’s lives, my colleagues and I decided to bring back the fun and educational experience of a middle school cooking classes in our new ITW Kitchen at the Learning Center on the Regenstein Learning Campus.  In addition to all of the aforementioned benefits, we wanted all of our Chicago Botanic Garden cooking classes to teach kids where food comes from as we demonstrate cooking vegetables and fruits that are grown at the Garden.

PHOTO: The girl is turning the crank on the vegetable noodle machine and watching the curls of zucchini noodles fall into a bowl.

Turning a zucchini into noodles, also known as “zoodles,” was a favorite activity in this cooking class.

If cooking classes are so great, why were home economics classes cut from elementary schools? I believe this happened when our country’s leaders decided that students needed to devote more time and attention to pure reading and math. This was done with the best of intentions. However, cooking gives kids a practical reason to learn those academic disciplines. It makes all subjects more meaningful and worth learning, so maybe it’s time to say, “No Child Left Out of the Kitchen.”

PHOTO: a girls is smiling as she holds the plate of muffins she made, and is going to taste.

Why do kids like cooking? Because they like eating good food!

Have I convinced you? Then consider enrolling your youngster, or even yourself, in a cooking program. The Garden is the perfect place. And remember, if you leave the teaching to us, then you won’t have to clean up afterward.


Here are some upcoming cooking classes held in the new ITW Kitchen.


Healthy Cooking for Kids: Baking is a four-session class for Grades 5–8; the first in this series of cooking classes. 
Sundays, January 22 – February 12, 2017
1 – 4 p.m.
ITW Kitchen, Learning Center

An experienced kids’ culinary instructor will offer young teens some basic food-preparation techniques, as they follow recipes using healthy ingredients from a garden. By the end of this multi-week course, students will be able to bake savory scones, whole grain muffins, and other treats.


Weekend Family Classes are 90-minute programs with monthly mouthwatering themes, ideal for families with children ages 4-10 to make a dish together.

Sensational Squash
Sunday, November 13, 2016
9:30 – 11 a.m.
1 – 2:30 p.m.

Joyful Gingerbread
Saturday, December 3, 2016
Sunday, December 4, 2016
Saturday, December 17, 2016
9:30 – 11 a.m. or 1 – 2:30 p.m.

Loco for Cocoa!
Saturday, January 21, 2017
Sunday, January 29, 2017
9:30 – 11 a.m. or 1 – 2:30 p.m.

Sweet Treats: Cold Eats 
Sunday, February 12, 2017
Saturday, February 25, 2017
9:30 – 11 a.m. or 1 – 2:30 p.m.

Churn It and Flip ‘Em (Make your Own Butter and Pancakes)
Saturday, March 4, 2017
Sunday, March 12, 2017
9:30 – 11 a.m. or 1 – 2:30 p.m. 

Pizza Party 
Saturday, March 25, 2017
Sunday, April 2, 2017
9:30 – 11 a.m. or 1 – 2:30 p.m.


Adult Cooking Classes are hands-on 90-minute workshops taught by food experts, who will introduce new ingredients, flavors, and techniques into your culinary repertoire.


Don’t forget summer camp!

ITW Kitchen Camps are week-long, food-featured summer camps for Grades 1-7.
Summer camp registration opens December 5, 2016.

  • Cooking A-Z, Grades 1-3 
  • Botany in the Kitchen, Grades 3-4
  • Cuisine, Grades 5-7

 

PHOTO: Two girls are eating carrots. One holds two fingers up behind the other's head to give her bunny ears.

Kids and bunnies like garden-fresh carrots, especially if they are preparing their own snacks and meals.

Check our website at chicagobotanic.org for the latest details about new classes, dates, times, registration, fees, and future cooking programs.

One final note: Since writing this blog, my own daughter can now make mac & cheese and a pretty good omelet. 


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

A few years ago, my Daisy and Brownie Girl Scout troop was working on their Household Elf badge. We needed a fun way to teach about conserving water at home—not a lecture—because let’s face it, after a full day of school, 6- to 9-year-old girls would will not sit still and listen to another lesson. I decided to make a board game for them. The main message of this game was a really important one: in Chicago, all of our water for drinking, cleaning, and recreation comes from Lake Michigan. If we waste water, then we waste the lake. It is that simple. 

PHOTO: Board, cups, beads, and game tokens are arranged for the water conservation game.

The Water Conservation Game is set up and ready to play.

The girls responded very well to the activity. I am sharing it on the Garden’s blog for others to use, because at the Chicago Botanic Garden, we would also like people to understand the importance of conserving water from our lakes and other sources. Obviously this game was created for Chicago residents, but the same principles apply everywhere, in every community. The game could be adapted for another location by replacing the image of the Lake Michigan with an image to represent the local water source. (For most cities, that is groundwater.)

Download the game board

I discovered, to my surprise, that many of my Brownie Scouts were not familiar with board games. Most millennials have lots of experience pushing virtual buttons on a screen and competing against friends in cyberspace, but tossing a die and moving a token around a board with actual friends? Not so much. Anyone replicating this activity may find they need to explain how a game like this works. Also, it was also important to require that the players actually read the board squares in order to understand why they are taking two or three or ten beads as they move around the board. Having a discussion at the end of the game proved essential to getting the message across. 

After playing the game with my Scouts, I shared it with a group of middle school girls who were studying conservation in an after-school program. Believe it or not, it worked well with the older students, too. In fact, they loved it—mostly because they got to make a bracelet. But hey, whatever works, right?! 

To use this activity with your group, make one complete game set for every three to five students.

A game set includes:

  • 1 game board, printed on 11″ x 17″ paper
  • 1 six-sided die
  • Place marker tokens; one per person (these can be any small object, or borrow them from another board game set)
  • About 100 pony beads (I like to use transparent blue plastic beads because they look like water)
  • 1 small cup per person, plus one cup to serve as the bead reservoir
  • Elastic thread cut into 8-inch pieces; one per person (this is to make bracelets)

Game rules

  1. The object of this game is to move around the board and be the person who uses the least water. Remind players that every time we use water, we take a little more out out of Lake Michigan.
  2. Put about 100 beads in a cup and place it in the middle of the lake. The beads represent water from Lake Michigan. Players will keep track of how much water they use by collecting the beads in their cups as they move around the board.
  3. Players place their markers on “Start.” Each player rolls the die; the player with the highest roll goes first. If there is a tie, roll again to break the tie. The player sitting on the left of the first person goes second and players take turns going around the board in a clockwise direction. (I had to explain this to the girls in my troop.)
  4. The first player rolls the die and moves that number of spaces on the board in the direction of the arrows. The player lands on a square, reads what it says and follows the directions, collecting the beads from the reservoir and putting them into her own cup. Each player takes a turn and until everyone has moved around the board once and ended at the lake. It is not necessary to roll a perfect number to reach the end.
  5. When everyone is swimming in the lake at the end, tally up the number of beads each player has collected. The player with the fewest beads wins, because she used less water than the other players. 
  6. Return beads to the reservoir and play again once or twice to give others a chance to win. 

What is this game telling us? 

Ask the players to think about water use. The questions below can stimulate discussion. This can be brief, but it is important to reinforce the message that all of our water comes from Lake Michigan and we need to be responsible with water use.

  • What activities in the game used a lot of water and made someone lose the game?
  • What are some ways people waste water?
  • What practices use less water? 
  • What would happen if everyone was careless and used all the water from the lake? 
  • What can you do at home to reduce the amount of water you take out of Lake Michigan? 

 

PHOTO: Package of 620 pony beads and a bracelet made from the beads

Transparent blue pony beads resemble water and make a nice bracelet.

Make a water bead bracelet

For a fun wrap up, each player can make a bracelet using the beads and elastic string. Wear the bracelet to remember to try and use less water at home. The bracelet makes a nice reward for learning outside the classroom.

One last important note

When teaching young children about water conservation, avoid the temptation to bring up stories of environmental problems that are beyond their ability to solve right now in their lives, like unpleasant images of industrial pollution, drought, and famine. Child development experts will tell you that when we burden children with messages about how they need to help save the planet, we actually do more harm than good by making them feel overwhelmed, hopeless, and less inclined to adapt sustainable habits. Focus on things they can do, like turning off the water when they brush their teeth. It is enough that they learn not to use more water than they need at home so that they can share it with all of the creatures they love. This is a message we can respond to positively at any age.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Leaves are green. There are very few exceptions in healthy living plants, and most of the exceptions are partially green with red, yellow, orange, or white patterns; or they look white, but upon closer inspection they are actually whitish, bluish-green, and not pure white. The pigments that give all leaves their color are essential for the plant’s ability to harness energy from the sun and make sugars in the process we know as photosynthesis.

But every once in a while, a completely white seedling sprouts from a seed. This happened with some basil I grew a few years ago. 

 

PHOTO: this picture shows two seedlings, one has two green seed leaves and the other is white and only half as big.

The green and albino seedlings came up at the same time, but the albino seedling never grew true leaves, and eventually withered and died.

My albino basil survived only a few days. Without any chlorophyll—the green pigment necessary for photosynthesis—this seedling was doomed. That is the case with all albino plants. The gene mutation that gives rise to albino plants is fatal to the plant, because without the ability to make sugars, the plant runs out of energy to live.

So when I was perusing the online Burpee seed catalog and came across “variegated cat grass” I was curious. VERY curious, and perhaps you are, too.

PHOTO: a potted plant of white grass leaves.

How can this albino plant survive? (Photo permission from W. Atlee Burpee Company)

I had several questions: 

  • The term “variegated” implies that the leaves would be striped or multicolored, but in the picture it appears that there are all white leaves. What will this grass actually look like?
  • How long will it take to sprout?
  • How easy it to grow?
  • Is there enough green on those leaves for the grass to survive or will it die off like my basil?
  • If it does survive, how long can I keep it growing?

And most importantly:

  • Would this make an awesome science activity for students in the classroom and at home to investigate the importance of chlorophyll in plants?

There was only one way to find the answers. I ordered the seeds and grew some variegated cat grass in our nature lab at the new Learning Center. You can do this in your classroom to find answers to my questions and your own. 

Before I give you directions for growing cat grass, you may be wondering:

What IS cat grass?

The cat grass you may have seen sold in pet stores is usually a type of wheat, or Triticum. Our “variegated cat grass” is a type of barley (Hordeum vulgare variegata). Both are cereal grains that have been cultivated as food for hundreds of years. Both are sold commercially as cat grass because some cats like to chew on the leaves. Not being a cat owner, I don’t know if cats actually like this stuff, but apparently it sells.

Variegated barley was the result of science experiments on genetic mutations in barley seeds in the 1920s. The hybrid barley seeds have been packaged and sold by different seed companies because…well, they’re attractive and intriguing—they caught my attention.

How to plant cat grass, barley, wheat, or any grass seeds

You need:

  • A container that will hold soil at a depth of at least 2 inches; drainage holes are best, but not necessary
  • Variegated cat grass seeds (sold as “cat grass, variegated” and available at Burpee and other seed suppliers)
  • Potting soil
  • Water
  • A warm, sunny location for your plants

 

PHOTO: Twelve plants have sprouted, one green, three green and white striped, and the rest all white.

In less than a week, a few more than half of the twenty variegated cat grass seeds planted in this 4-inch pot grew to 4 – 6 inches tall. The taller plants are ready for a trim.

Fill the container with moist potting soil. Spread seeds on the surface of the soil. Cover seeds with a thin layer of moist soil and tamp the soil down so that most of the seeds are covered. It’s all right if you can see some of the seeds through the thin layer of soil. Place in a warm, bright location. The seeds will sprout in a few days, but may take a week depending on the room temperature.

If students plant their own individual pots, have them place 20 – 30 seeds in each 3-inch container. The seeds I bought came 300 to a pack, so that means you need at least two (maybe three) packs to have enough for everyone in the class.

PHOTO: most of the grass is all white, but there are nine or ten all or partially green leaves.

Half of the 100 seeds planted in this 8-inch pot have sprouted, and more should be coming up soon.

You can also use the whole pack in a 8- to 10-inch container, or even spread more seeds in a foil baking pan filled with soil to grow a carpet of grass. The more densely you plant the seeds, the closer the plants will grow together and it will look and feel more like a healthy lawn. A sparser planting makes it easier to observe individual plants. It’s up to you how you want to do it, really.

Keep the grass in a warm, sunny location. Water when dry, but do not allow it to dry out. When the grass leaves are more than 3 inches tall, use a sharp pair of scissors to trim them to a uniform height just as you would mow a lawn. This will prevent the grass from going to seed and keep it alive longer. You can plant new seeds in the same planter to revitalize in two to three weeks when it starts looking a little tired.

Now the REAL science part: 

Whether you make a single classroom planter or have each student plant her own pot, observe your variegated cat grass for the next four to six weeks, or even longer. Keep it watered and trimmed. Measure its growth. Take photos or sketch it to record how it grows and changes. Ask your own questions and try to find answers, and ultimately reach a conclusion about what happens to white plants. If you and your class are really interested, plant some more cat grass and change the procedure to test your own ideas. It’s that easy to do plant science in your classroom.

Want more albino plant science? Read on.

More activities for inquiring minds

You can experiment with other genetically modified albino seeds available through science supply companies.

PHOTO: A packet of genetically modified corn seeds and instruction booklet

Seed kits enable you to investigate different genetic traits, including the albino mutation.

Carolina Biological Supply Company sells hybrid corn that will grow white leaves and stems. I have planted these seeds and they work pretty well, but require a bright window or light and a warm environment to sprout successfully. A classroom kit contains soil, planting trays, and 500 seeds for a classroom investigation, and costs about $100. You can order just the seeds in packs of 100 genetic corn seeds that are all albino (90 percent of the seedlings will grow to be albino) for $18.50, or a green/albino mix—which means about 75 percent of seedlings will be green and 25 percent white, for $10.50. The latter enables you to compare the mutation to the normal strain. 

PHOTO: Ten white corn seedlings are a few inches tall.

Five days after planting, albino corn seedlings are beautiful, but ill-fated.

Nasco sells seeds and kits to investigate albino plants. Their “Observing the Growth of Mutant Corn Seeds” kit serves up to 40 students and costs $62.50. Nasco also has albino tobacco seeds with 3:1 green to white ratio, 1,200 seeds for $12.05. Tobacco seeds are smaller, and therefore more difficult for little fingers to handle than corn or barley. I have never tried growing them, but that might be my next science project this fall.

PHOTO: eight inch glass planter with green grass and label that says: Cat Grass (Barley).

After a two months, my densely planted variegated cat grass is thriving at the nature lab, even though it no longer resembles the catalog photo.

The answer to my question? Yes! This is an awesome science activity for students because it’s easy and demonstrates something really important—in fact, something essential to our existence!

You don’t need to purchase the fancy kits to investigate why plants are green. You can get a lot of good science learning out of a pack of variegated cat grass. All you really need to do is look around you and notice the colors in nature. Do you see white leaves anywhere? If you do, then there is probably a science investigation waiting for you.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Color the leaves to understand the shades of fall

All it takes is a little Chemistry 101

Kathy J. —  October 5, 2016 — Leave a comment

During the summer, tree leaves produce all the pigments we see in fall, but they make so much chlorophyll that the green masks the underlying reds, oranges, and yellows.

In fall, days get shorter and cooler, and trees stop producing chlorophyll. As a result, the green color fades, revealing the vibrant colors we love. Eventually, these colors also fade, and the leaves turn brown, wither, and drop. Then the trees become dormant for winter.

Download a coloring activity.

Fall Color at the Garden

There are four pigments responsible for leaf colors:

  • Chlorophyll (pronounced KLOR-a-fill) – green
  • Xanthophyll (pronounced ZAN-tho-fill) – yellow
  • Carotene (pronounced CARE-a-teen) – gold, orange  
  • Anthocyanin (pronounced an-tho-SIGH-a-nin) – red, violet, can also be bluish

Leaves are brown when there are no more photo-sensitive pigments; only the tannins are left.


Color these leaves according to the pigments they produce:

honeylocust leaf
Honey locust

Leaves turn color early in the season; the lighter carotenes glow warmly against the blue sky and green grass.

 

sugar maple leaf
Sugar maple

The fading chlorophyll, combined with xanthophyll, carotene, and anthocyanin, produce the spectacular show we anticipate every year. Leaves change slowly and over time may be any combination of the four pigments, ending in a brilliant flame of anthocyanin.

 

japanese maple leaf
Japanese maple

The darker anthocyanin hues turn these feathery leaves the color of shadows—fitting for the spooky month of Halloween.

 

sweetgum leaf
Sweetgum

Like the maple, this tree puts on an awe-inspiring display of xanthophyll, carotene, and anthocyanin all together.

 

ginkgo leaf
Ginkgo

Light filtering through the xanthophyll and lighter carotene of these leaves creates an ethereal glow. The ginkgo drops all of its leaves in a day or two.

 

sumac leaf
Sumac

The anthocyanin in these leaves makes them the color and shape of flames, and appears as fire against the duller colors of the surrounding landscape.

 

buckeye leaf
Buckeye

Carotenes recede quickly around the edges of the leaves as they prepare to parachute to the ground.

 

tulip tree leaf illustration
Tulip tree

A pale hint of chlorophyll mixes with xanthophyll and a touch of carotene as this tree shuts down for winter.

 

pin oak leaf illustration
Pin oak

This stately tree holds its anthocyanin-rich leaves through the fall. The color eventually fades, but the tree holds its pigment-less leaves through the winter.


Download a coloring activity. 

Facts about fall leaf colors:

  • Trees use the sugars they produce through photosynthesis to make all of the pigments we see.
  • The best fall color display comes in years when there has been a warm, wet spring; a summer without drought or excessive heat; and a fall with warm, sunny days and cool nights.
  • Chlorophyll, carotene, xanthophyll, and anthocyanin are also responsible for the coloring of all fruits and vegetables, including corn, pumpkins, beans, peppers, tomatoes, and berries.
  • Peak fall color comes earlier in northern latitudes than southern latitudes, so if you miss the best of the sugar maples in Chicago, take a trip south to get your color fix.
  • You can preserve a leaf by ironing it between sheets of wax paper.

Fall color(ing) activity correct colors:

Fall Color(ing) Activity Answers


Illustrations by Maria Ciacco
©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org