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.

There’s a chill in the air. Flurries are flying past the windows. And your child is whining. Winter is coming and parents will need a cure for their children’s encroaching cabin fever. Little Diggers is the answer.

This four-class series gives 2-, 3-, and 4-year-olds a chance to meet once a month and explore nature with caregivers in all seasons—yes, even in winter. The colder months in particular are the best time to encourage children to play in nature, said Mila Love, who coordinates the program.

“We really want to get outside and teach kids that it’s OK to be outside in all types of weather,” she said. “This isn’t a passive, sitting around and listening kind of hour.”

Outdoor play is a part of every Little Diggers class.

Outdoor play is a part of every Little Diggers class.

The benefits of nature play are many. Research has shown that children who play outdoors build confidence and creativity, and have lower stress levels, among other benefits. Nature play doesn’t need to stop when the holiday decorations come out. Increase the benefits by playing outdoors year-round.

Spending time outdoors is fun for everyone.

Spending time outdoors is fun for everyone.

So, what does a typical Little Diggers class look like?

  1. Kids and caregivers greet the instructor and check out the activity stations set up for the class theme of the day. Winter themes will be nocturnal animals (January), life in the pond (February), weather (March), and spring (April). They’ll get the chance to try out the different stations, and maybe create some art or build structures. Kids are free to decide what interests them.
  2. Circle time! Kids gather to talk about the month’s theme and read a book about it, then participate in an active, hands-on experience.
  3. Free play time gives Little Diggers participants a chance to check out the activity stations again or pot up a plant to take home. Winter Little Diggers take-home plants will be purple basil (January), nasturtium (February), lamb’s ear (March), and pansies (April).
  4. Next, the group goes outside. There are several locations at the new Regenstein Learning Campuswhere Little Diggers participants explore nature. Snow digging might take place in the outdoor classroom space. Planting activities take place in the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden, while Kleinman Family Cove is where you can get a close-up look at aquatic plants and animals.
  5. Wrapping up the hour, kids come back to the classroom to pick-up their plants and projects, and say their goodbyes.

The only time the class stays indoors is when it’s too dangerous to be outdoors (if, for example, the temperature dips below zero degrees Fahrenheit). But that’s rare, so winter Little Diggers participants should dress warmly enough to be outdoors for an extended amount of time.

Instructor Mila Love leads a class of Little Diggers in the Regenstein Learning Center.

Instructor Mila Love leads a class of Little Diggers in the Regenstein Learning Center.

Little Diggers make clay veggies

Little Diggers make clay veggies

Love said she recommends Little Diggers as a first social group experience for toddlers. Because the adults stay with the children, it’s a great way for them to participate in a classroom-like setting before preschool or kindergarten starts, without being too far from their caregivers. Parents can benefit as well from meeting other parents, she said.

At home, children can care for the plants they potted in class. Instructors will often pass on instructions to recreate some of the fun. That herb-scented play dough they loved at Little Diggers can easily be made at home.

In winter, it’s common to want to stay inside because it’s cold. Having a nature-focused program like Little Diggers to look forward to, kids will want to get out and play, no matter what the weather is like.

The winter doldrums won’t stand a chance.

Online registration for Winter Little Diggers is now open. Members receive a discount. Have an older child? Sign up for one of our upcoming Weekend Family Classes, like Joyful Gingerbread of Loco for Cocoa.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Martian: Many of us watched and loved the movie. Some of us read the book. A few of us got inspired to use the story to teach plant science to students.

PHOTO: Book cover art for The Martian: a novel

If you are a science enthusiast, I highly recommend reading the book.

The Martian by Andy Weir tells the fictional story of NASA astronaut and botanist Mark Watney, who becomes stranded alone on Mars and has to figure out how stay alive until the next NASA mission returns to rescue him. He plants six potatoes and successfully propagates a crop of potatoes in Martian dirt fertilized with human poop.

The story got me wondering if we could replicate Martian soil with local ingredients and use it for plant experiments. So I contacted the Garden’s soil scientist, Louise Egerton-Warburton, and asked her if this was possible. She responded with a recipe:

  • Mix two parts crushed volcano rock, two parts basalt dust, one part sand, plus 0.2 parts feldspar
  • Autoclave (heat to very high temperature) three times to kill microbes
  • Experiment away!

You know you work in a great place when you can ask a colleague for directions for making Martian soil and you get an immediate, enthusiastic response with suggestions for how to use it. I acquired the materials and cooked up a batch.

PHOTO: a box of basalt, a cup of sand, a bag of feldspar, and a glass beaker containing the Martian soil mixture

I keep the ingredients for Martian soil in my office, in case Mark Watney drops by. Because you just never know. Matt Damon and Andy Weir are also welcome, but I hear they have both moved on to other projects.

One important thing I must mention: technically speaking, this mixture is not truly “soil.” Soil is the upper layer of material on the Earth that serves as an ideal medium for growing plants. It contains inorganic minerals from weathered and broken rocks combined with organic material from the decomposed remains of dead plants and animals. Real soil hosts microscopic bacteria and fungus that facilitate a cycling of nutrients through the ecosystem and convert minerals to a form plants can absorb and use. Soil also supports many little macroscopic critters, like worms and mites, that increase the porosity and affect other properties of the mixture.

The substance we would find on the surface of Mars is called regolith, which is mineral particles that result from weathering of rocks. Since my mixture is an approximation of what might be found on Mars, but made from Earth-sourced ingredients, it should actually be called simulated Martian regolith. But that’s a mouthful, so from here on I’m going to call it Martian soil and ask you, dear readers, to accept the inaccuracy for the sake of simplicity. OK?

I took my Martian soil and set out to answer my first question: what happens if we try to plant seeds in this stuff? Put another way, is it possible to grow plants in Martian soil without adding anything? To answer this question, I took a polystyrene egg carton and planted marjoram seeds (because I had some laying around) in my Martian soil and in some Earth potting soil for comparison.

PHOTO: an 18 egg egg carton that has the 9 cells on the left planted with Martian soil and the nine cells on the right planted in earth potting soil; marjoram has sprouted in all 18 cells.

It was overcast outside when I took this picture in the greenhouse—you’ll have to look closely to see that the marjoram seeds sprouted in both Martian and Earth soils. So far, so good.

The Martian soil is completely different from the potting soil in appearance and texture, and it responds differently when watered. Shortly after the seeds germinated in all of the cells, the Mars side went south. It didn’t hold water very well; it dried out and became hard, almost like concrete. It was no surprise that all of the seedlings on the Mars side died soon after germination. Plants on the Earth side continued to grow and thrive.

PHOTO: The same 18 cell egg carton now has nine Martian soil cells with no plants and nine cells with healthy marjoram growing in Earth potting soil.

It is clear from this test that the Martian soil needs to be amended to grow plants. We were told this in The Martian, but now I know it from personal experience. We can use our observations to understand why Martian soil is not a good medium for plants. That’s real science learning!

In the book, Watney used a bucket of Earth soil and human waste to amend the Martian soil for his potato crop. The book and the movie differ on this part—likely because the process required to make Martian soil suitable for growing potatoes was long and tedious. It wouldn’t make for riveting cinema. Instead of cultivating the soil over time, movie-Watney planted a spoonful of rehydrated human poop next to each piece of potato. 

While movie-Watney’s actions remind us of stories about the Pilgrims teaching the indigenous people to place a piece of fish next to each kernel of corn to improve the crop yield, there are some problems with applying this method to our Martian soil. The Martian soil would still lack sufficient organic materials and therefore not be able to hold water (as I demonstrated with my marjoram seed experiment). There would be an insufficient population of microbes to break down the human waste. Furthermore, the fecal matter might be so concentrated in nutrients that it could actually be toxic to the potato plants. I don’t believe it would actually work.

This compelled me to do some myth busting for my next experiment: since “humanure” would be unsafe—and gross!—I used worm poop, or vemicompost, which I have in plentiful supply from worm bins in our Learning Center nature laboratory. Also, I discovered that you can order “Martian Regolith Simulant” from a company online (who knew?). Although it’s expensive, it saved me the effort of crushing rocks, so I’m using it from now on.

This time I planted russet potato pieces and some sweet potatoes that had sprouted in my pantry at home (oops!) in azalea pots. I set up three conditions: Martian soil, Martian soil plus vermicompost, and Earth potting soil for comparison. 

 

PHOTO: Three 10-inch pots with potatoes planted in each of the soil conditions: Martian soil, potting soil, and mixture of Martian soil with vermicompost

In spite of my doubts, I’m actually hoping that the potatoes in Martian soil plus vermicompost out-perform the potatoes in plain Martian soil, because bringing worms on a space voyage could prove to be a good solution for future colonists on Mars! But we’ll have to wait and see.

Underlying these experiments (and few other I have tried) is a basic investigation of what plants need to survive. By testing to find the right combination of Martian soil and amendments, and limiting solutions to those that could be transported by a spaceship to another planet, we are using engineering practices because we are trying to solve a problem. This is real-world science and engineering that students could do in the classroom. 

PHOTO: Kathy J. sitting in her office wearing a space suit.

Here I am, working on my next astro-botany experiment, for myself, for teachers, and for science!

Besides satisfying my personal curiosity, these experiments are paving the way for some science lessons we are writing for teachers and students.

If you are a teacher interested in learning more about how to teach NGSS-aligned life science lessons using Martian soil, sign up for our workshop, STEM: Growing Plants in Martian Soil on Saturday, December 2, 2017. And watch for other Martian soil training opportunities in the future. 

We may never need to grow crops in Martian soil. But as we investigate the challenges of colonizing another planet, we can learn more about what plants need to thrive and also develop a genuine appreciation for how amazing our Earth soil is.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Tiny hands, belonging to a class of third graders, carefully fold rulers into squares and rest them on a grassy meadow near the Dixon Prairie. Inside these 2-by-2-foot quadrants is a fantastical world to discover: the height of different species of plants, the temperature of the soil, the wind and the sun, and the climate of the lawn.

The children have a mission on this blustery October morning, an adventure in the far reaches of the Chicago Botanic Garden, where a yellow school bus opens its doors to a field trip inside the life of a Garden scientist.

A young boy studies tallgrass on the prairie during a guided field trip at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Learning about ecosystems outside the classroom creates valuable experiences and future scientists.

Prairie Pondering is just one of the Garden’s guided field trips, where students from Chicago area schools can experience the day-to-day work of a Garden ecologist. Trained Garden volunteers engage students in guided field trips from September to June. They use the same tools as horticultural scientists, take samples in the field, and ask questions that Garden experts examine on a daily basis. The goal of the field trips is to create real-life opportunities for students to have fun with science outside of their classroom walls, said Drew Wehrle, the Garden’s coordinator of student field trips.

To get their hands dirty, so to speak.

A teacher and group of students study the ecosystem in the 2ft-square area they have blocked off.

Evaluating the ecosystem of a particular quadrant helps scientists of all age focus their study.

“What are the biotic—or living—things affecting the prairie?” asked a Garden volunteer during Prairie Pondering. Students scribble answers in their notebooks: sun, wind.

“What does the soil look and smell like?” More answers: dry, smells bad.

“What is the temperature of the soil? Why do you think it’s different from the temperature in the air?”

One girl watches her thermometer fluctuate from 77 to 76 degrees. “The temperature is changing!” And so begins an early, hard lesson about Chicago weather.

As the group moves on to the prairie, the children are asked to consider the many different plants they’ve found. One girl counts 100, another 200. One boy points out a milkweed plant that reminds him of the game Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare.

“The point of the field trips is less about botanical expertise and more about asking the kids to consider why they think a plant looks or behaves the way it does,” Wehrle said.

Two girls compare answers as they walk through the prairie on a field trip.

Sharing time together outside is part of the fun of guided field trips.

A boy on a field trip runs through the prairie.

Field trips are a great opportunity for outdoor fun, too.

Each of the guided field trips is crafted to fulfill age-appropriate state Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), so students get to explore while also engaging with ideas that complement what they’re already learning in the classroom. Guided field trips include a range of botanical and nature topics, including The Wonders of Worms and Soil, Lake Investigations, Water Bugs, and Tree Detectives. Field trips are offered for third grade through high school students, and can be guided or self-directed. Self-guided field trips allow groups of all ages to explore while their teachers direct them on independent activities.

For more information about field trips, or to sign up, visit www.chicagobotanic.org/fieldtrips.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

DIY Living Plant Wall

Kathy J. —  May 15, 2017 — 1 Comment

This year, the Living Wall in the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden needed to be replanted. The metal cells that hold the plants to the wall were removed and taken to the Garden’s greenhouse nursery to grow new plants before placement outside for the summer.

This left us with four empty walls at the entrance to the Growing Garden. So we decided to get creative. We made an “alternative” living wall. 

PHOTO: sixteen cone-shaped pockets containing small plants are displayed on the brown walls.

The south-facing wall is now covered with burlap pocket planters containing alyssum, lettuce seedings, grass, and coriander.

Our carpenters covered foam boards with brown burlap and installed these panels on the living wall frame where the plant cells had been removed. Students from the Garden’s Nature Preschool planted seeds and transplanted seedlings into small pots. We placed the plants into colored burlap planters and pinned them to the foam walls, and voila! We have a vertical garden again.

You can do this at home. Making planting pockets is simple and fun.

  1. Plant seeds or transplant small plants and let them sprout. We used biodegradable Fertilpots, but you could also start seeds in egg cartons, newspaper pots, or plastic pots.

2. Cut the burlap into squares that are twice as long and wide as the pots.

PHOTO: The picture shows the size of the burlap square next to the pot that was used.

Our Fertilpots were 4″ tall, so I cut the fabric roughly into 8″-x-8″ squares. This does not need to be exact.

3. Fold the square in half diagonally and sew a seam along the side. You can use a heavy duty needle with a sewing machine or do this by hand with a darning needle. It might be possible to use a hot glue gun to make the seam, but I did not try this.

PHOTO: This shows what the burlap looks like after it is sewed in half.

I used a sewing machine because I made more than 100 of these. They could be sewn by hand.

4. Turn the triangle inside out to form the pocket. Slip the planted pot into the pocket and get ready to hang it on a wall.

PHOTO: This shows the pocket with a pot inside.

The seam side of the pocket is the back, and the pointed front top can either be folded down or cut off.

5. To hang on the wall, pinch the extra fabric so the burlap fits snugly around the pot. Fold down the point in front or cut it off—your choice. Push a long pin through the pot and the fabric and pin the pocket to the wall. (I had pins used by our horticulturists to propagate cuttings; you could use T-pins or other pins with large heads.) You could also lace a ribbon around the top of the pocket and cinch the fabric, then hang the planter by the ribbon.

PHOTO: The picture shows a hand holding the fabric to make the pocket fit around the pot.

Gathering the extra fabric will help hold the pot better, and it will look neater on the wall.

Students in our Nature Preschool enjoyed helping to grow the plants and pin them to the Living Wall. Each child wanted to place his or her planter next to a friend’s planter so they could grow close together.

wall KJ with girl

Just for fun, we experimented with some other kinds of planters, including plastic bottles and shoes.

PHOTO: a 2 liter plastic bottle turned sideways and filled with soil and oregano plants is pinned to the wall.

If you want to try growing a plant in a 2-liter bottle, cut a rectangular opening in the side of the bottle, poke six to eight holes on the opposite side for drainage, fill with soil, plant, and hang it up.

The preschoolers are fascinated by the soda bottle planter. They like to look in the round opening on the side. The toddler shoe makes everyone smile. We may add more surprising planters over the next few weeks, just to keep it interesting.

PHOTO: a toddler shoe with alyssum growing in it is laced with twine and hanging on the wall,

An old shoe can become a whimsical planter that sparks imagination.

If you decide to try something like this at home, be advised that the small pots need to be watered frequently (ours need watering daily) because they tend to dry out faster than larger containers. It’s a good project for young children because they will get to do a lot of watering without harming the plants.

Our “alternative living wall” is only temporary. Stop by the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden between now and June 12 to see how it’s growing. After that, the real living wall will be installed for the rest of the year.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

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