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.

I am often asked, “What can kids do to help the Earth?”

There is a standard litany of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” suggestions that almost everyone can tell you: recycle your garbage, turn the lights off when you leave a room, turn the water off while brushing your teeth, and so forth. 

EarthWe’ve been saying these same things for decades. And while they’re great ideas, they’re things we should all be doing. It’s time to give kids a chance to do something bigger. During Climate Week this year, I am offering a different suggestion: Watch dandelions grow and participate in Project BudBurst.

PHOTO: Dandelions.

These happy dandelions could contribute valuable information to the science of climate change.

Project BudBurst is a citizen science program in which ordinary people (including kids 10 years old and up) contribute information about plant bloom times to a national database online. The extensive list of plants that kids can watch includes the common dandelion, which any 10-year-old can find and watch over time.

Why is this an important action project?

Scientists are monitoring plants as a way to detect and measure changes in the climate. Recording bloom times of dandelions and other plants over time across the country enables them to compare how plants are growing in different places at different times and in different years. These scientists can’t be everywhere watching every plant all the time, so your observations may be critical in helping them understand the effects of climate change on plants.

What to Do:

1. Open the Project Budburst website at and register as a member. It’s free and easy. Click around the website and read the information that interests you.

2. Go to the “Observing Plants” tab and print a Wildflower Regular Report form. Use this form to gather and record information about your dandelion. 

3. Find a dandelion in your neighborhood, preferably one growing in a protected area, not likely to be mowed down or treated with weed killers, because you will want to watch this plant all year. It’s also best if you can learn to recognize it without any flowers, and that you start with a plant that has not bloomed yet.

4. Fill in the Wildflower Regular Report with information about the dandelion and its habitat.

Common Plant Name: Common dandelion

Scientific Name: Taraxacum officinale

Site Name: Give the area a name like “Green Family Backyard” or “Smart Elementary School Playground”

Latitude and Longitude: Use a GPS device to find the exact location of your dandelion. (Smartphones have free apps that can do this. Ask an adult for help if you need it.) Record the letters, numbers, and symbols exactly as shown on the GPS device. This is important because it will enable the website database to put your plant on a national map.

Answer the questions about the area around your plant. If you don’t understand a question, ask an adult to help you.

PHOTO: This is a printout from the Project BudBurst Website, that asks about the location of the plant and provides places to record bloom times, as well as other comments.

The BudBurst Wildflower Regular Report is easy to use and will guide you through the process.

girl with data sheet

After you find a dandelion you want to watch, record information about the location of the plant.

5. Now you’re ready to watch your dandelion. Visit it every day that you can. On the right side of the form, record information as you observe it.

budburst notebook

  • In the “First Flower” box, write the date you see the very first, fully open yellow flower on your dandelion.
  • As the plant grows more flowers, record the date when it has three or more fully open flowers.
  • Where it says “First Ripe Fruit,” it means the first time a fluffy, white ball of seeds is open. Resist the temptation to pick it and blow it. Remember, you are doing science for the planet now!
  • For “Full Fruiting” record the date when there are three seedheads on this plant. It’s all right if the seeds have blown away. It may have new flowers at the same time.
  • In the space at the bottom, you can write comments about things you notice. For example, you may see an insect on the flower, or notice how many days the puffball of seeds lasts. This is optional.
  • Keep watching, and record the date that the plant looks like it is all finished for the year—no more flowers or puffballs, and the leaves look dead.
  • When your plant has completed its life cycle, or it is covered in snow, log onto the BudBurst website and follow directions to add your information to the database.

Other Plants to Watch

You don’t have to watch dandelions. You can watch any of the other plants on the list, such as sunflower (Helianthus annuus) or Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica). You can also watch a tree or grass—but you will need to use a different form to record the information. Apple (Malus pumila), red maple (Acer rubrum), and eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) trees are easy to identify and interesting to watch. If you are an over-achiever, you can observe the butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) bloom times and do citizen science research for monarchs at the same time! (The USDA Forest Service website provides information about that; click here for more information.) 

PHOTO: Two girls are looking closely at a milkweed plant that has about eight green seed pods.

These students are observing a milkweed that is in the “First Ripe Fruit” stage.

For the past two springs, educators at the Chicago Botanic Garden have taught the fifth graders at Highcrest Middle School in nearby Wilmette how to do Project BudBurst in their school’s Prairie Garden. The students are now watching spiderwort, red columbine, yellow coneflower, and other native plants grow at their school. Some of these prairie plants may be more difficult to identify, but they provide even more valuable information about climate.

So while you are spending less time in the shower and you’re riding your bike instead of asking mom for a ride to your friend’s house, go watch some plants and help save the planet even more!

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Plant, water, and grow! Whether you are a parent, teacher, or caregiver, teaching children to plant seeds is a simple and authentic way to help them engage with nature. It’s an activity that the littlest of sprouts can do “all by myself,” or at least with minimal help from you.

PHOTO: Little Diggers pea planting in the raised beds.

Growing future gardeners in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden

Planting seeds leads to discussions about what seeds and plants need to grow and how food gets to our tables. Watering is a simple chore young children are capable of doing; it teaches them about responsibility and helps them feel they are making a contribution to the family or classroom. 

Students from our Little Diggers class, ages 2 to 4, planted peas indoors in mid-March and transplanted them outside into the raised beds in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden in mid-April. Come follow the steps we took to get there.

March: Planting the Pea Seeds Indoors

Supply List:

  • Seeds
  • Soilless potting mix or seed-starting potting mix in a wide-mouth container
  • Plant pots (plastic or biodegradable, roughly 2.5 inches in diameter)
  • Trowels, spray bottles, or watering cans
  • Plastic seedling tray with lid

Set-up Time: 10 minutes

Activity Time: 10–40 minutes of actual planting (depending on the size of the group)

Appropriate for Ages: 2 and up

Clean-up Time: 10–15 minutes

PHOTO: Large pea seeds are easy for small fingers to grasp.

Large pea seeds are easy for small fingers to grasp.

PHOTO: Use this kind of plastic seedling tray and lid.

Here I am modeling the latest in seedling trays. You can purchase these and our other supplies at your local garden center or home improvement store.

Select seeds that are big—the smaller the hands, the bigger the seed should be—and quick to sprout, or germinate. Also consider the amount of space the mature plants will occupy, and the time of year you are planting. Some seeds can be planted during the cool spring, while others should go in the ground once the threat of frost has passed.

We chose ‘Tom Thumb’ pea seeds because they are large enough for little hands to easily manipulate, they germinate in 7–14 days, they thrive in the cool spring weather, and they only grow to be 8 inches tall and 8 inches wide, making them great for small-space gardens and containers.

Tip: Some other large seeds suitable for little hands are sunflowers, beans, nasturtium (edible flower), pumpkin, and other squash. For more details about how and when to plant these seeds visit

PHOTO: A low, wide trug full of soil makes filling pots easy for younger gardeners.

A low, wide trug full of soil makes filling pots easy for younger gardeners.

PHOTO: Watering the seeds in is the best part of planting.

Watering in the seeds is the best part of planting.


Set out the potting mix in a wide-mouth container such as a flexible plastic tub, sand bucket, or cement mixing tray on the ground. Have trowels, pots, seeds, and spray bottles ready.

Tip: A soil container with a wide opening will lead to less soil on the ground. Also, more children will be able to plant at the same time.

Using a trowel, fill the pot with soil. Set two pea seeds on the soil and push them down ½- to 1-inch deep. Then cover the seeds with soil. Spray with a spray bottle until the soil is saturated.

Tip: Planting depth will depend on the type of seeds you are planting. Read the back of the seed packet for details.

Finally, each child should label their pot. We used craft sticks to easily identify each child’s plant.

Tip: Pot up extra seeds in case some don’t germinate. I potted up 10–15 extras. Every child needs to feel successful and have peas to transplant when the time comes. Once kids have planted seeds a few times and are a little older, you won’t need to pot up extras. Having seeds fail is the next great gardening lesson for more experienced young gardeners.

PHOTO: Our young grower adds his pot to the tray. It's a good idea to pot up extra seeds in case some don’t germinate.

Our young grower adds his pot to the tray. It’s a good idea to pot up extra seeds in case some don’t germinate.

PHOTO: Craft sticks easily identify each child’s plant. Keeping the top lid on slightly open helps air circulate around the plantings, so they don't grow fungus.

Craft sticks easily identify each child’s plant. Keeping the top lid on, but slightly open, helps air circulate around the plantings, so they don’t grow fungus.

Put the containers on the plastic tray and cover with a clear plastic lid. This will keep moisture in and will require less frequent watering. Allow the soil surface to dry out slightly between watering. Using the misting setting on the sprayer works well because it doesn’t create a hole in the soil and expose the seed like a watering can will.

Tip: Watch for white fungus growing on the soil surface. If this occurs, remove the plastic lid. This will kill the fungus and promote germination. If you will be away from the classroom or home for a few days, put the plastic lid on so the soil doesn’t dry out. Remove it when you return.

Tip: Peas don’t respond well to transplanting, so we planted the seeds in biodegradable pots to avoid this problem. These pots break down in the soil, allowing the roots to continue to grow undisturbed.

April: Transplanting the Pea Plants into the Garden

Supply List:

  • Pea plants
  • Trowels
  • Spray bottles or watering cans

Set-up Time: 10 minutes

Activity Time: 20–30 minutes or more (depending of the size of the group and the number of helpers)

Appropriate for Ages: 2 and up

Clean-up Time: 10 minutes

Choose a sunny location that receives at least six hours of direct sunlight every day and has well-drained soil. We planted our peas in the raised beds at the Fruit & Vegetable Garden.

Bring all the supplies out to the site. Have each child choose where they would like to dig their hole. Pass out a trowel and plant to each child. Dig a hole as deep as the soil in the pot. Place the plant, pot and all, in the hole. Fill in the space around the plant with soil and water the plants.

Check the peas daily and water them with a watering can or hose when the soil is slightly dry. About 50 – 55 days after planting, these shelling peas will be ready to harvest and eat! Come see the plants that the students of our Little Diggers class planted in the raised beds, just south of the orchard at the Fruit & Vegetable Garden!

PHOTO: Watering seedlings in the raised beds.

Remember to water in your seedlings when you put them in the ground!

PHOTO: Watering seedlings in the raised bed.

Sunshine and a good squirt of water will help this pea seedling grow!

Direct Sowing: Easy Peas-y Approach

PHOTO: Direct sowing is the easiest approach—and often the most successful with early spring vegetables. Not to mention: it's fun.

Direct sowing is the easiest approach—and often the most successful with early spring vegetables. Not to mention: it’s fun.

As a working parent, I chose this approach with my almost three-year-old. All you really need is a sunny spot with well-drained soil, seeds (we used ‘Tom Thumb’ peas because we have a small garden), a small shovel (trowel) and water. Choose a sunny spot for planting (6–8 hours of direct sun).

First I showed him how to draw lines in the soil with his trowel (they should be ½– to 1-inch deep). Then he dropped seeds along the lines. I wasn’t concerned about spacing 2 inches apart as recommended on the seed packet because I can always thin them out once the seeds start to grow. He covered the seeds up and watered them with the hose. Every evening, we enjoy checking to make sure the soil is damp.

Tip: If you’re little one is getting impatient, these peas can be harvested early and eaten, pod and all, like snow peas!

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

The Garden has a bright and cheery answer for overcoming classroom winter doldrums: take a field trip to see the Orchid Show

PHOTO: Students observe how orchids are adapted to the wet environment -- they grow aerial roots that can absorb water from the humid air.

Students observe how orchids are adapted to the wet environment—they grow aerial roots that can absorb water from the humid air.

At a time when schools are tightening budgets and limiting field trips, you might think that an Outrageous Orchids experience is a frivolous excursion—but, in fact, this is a luxurious way to learn life science principles. Our programs are grounded in fundamental science concepts outlined in the Next Generation Science Standards. From Valentine’s Day to St. Patrick’s Day, students get meaningful science lessons as they enjoy the sensational display of colors and aromas in our Greenhouses. 

Field trips are tailored to suit different grade levels. Younger students study the variety of color and shapes found in the exhibition to identify patterns. Early elementary level students examine the structures of orchids to understand their functions. Upper elementary students recognize how tropical orchids have adaptations for survival in a rainforest. These core ideas about orchids apply to all plants and are essential for understanding ecosystems. There isn’t a more beautiful way to study plant science anywhere else in the Chicago region.

PHOTO: It is easy for students to see how this flashy orchid attracts pollinators as well as people.

It is easy for students to see how this flashy orchid attracts pollinators as well as people.

As if being surrounded by gorgeous flowers in the dead of winter weren’t enough to engage a person’s brain, each student also gets to transplant and take a tropical plant to continue the learning after the visit. 

The Baggie Terrarium is a mini-ecosystem that reminds students of the water cycle and enables them to observe plant growth. 

Make a Baggie Terrarium

PHOTO: Baggie terrarium.

We call this a “baggie terrarium.”


  • 1 zip-top bag (quart-size or larger)
  • Potting soil, moistened
  • A small plant or plant cutting (during Outrageous Orchids classes, we let students take a spider plant “pup” from a very large spider plant)
  1. Pour soil into the bag to fill about 2-3 inches deep. Use a finger to create a hole in the soil for the plant.
  2. Bury the roots of the plant in the hole and gently tap the soil around the base of the plant. If you are planting a stem cutting, place the stem in the soil and tamp around the base. If you have a larger bag, you can add more than one plant. Three different plants in a gallon size bag can make an attractive terrarium.
  3. Seal the bag, leaving about a 1-inch opening. Blow into the bag to inflate it and quickly seal the last inch tight so the air doesn’t all escape. The carbon dioxide in your breath is good for the plant, and will give the bag enough substance to stand up.
  4. Place the terrarium in a bright location, but not in direct sunlight. Remember that most tropical plants grow under the canopy of taller trees and do not need full sun. In fact, too much direct sun makes their leaves fade!
  5. Watch for tiny water droplets forming on the sides of the bag. These will gradually roll down the sides of the bag and re-water the soil. As long as the bag is completely sealed, it will stay moist and you will never have to open the bag or add more water. But if it dries out, you will need to water the plants.

You can leave your terrarium alone for a long time and not do anything but watch the plants grow. Eventually, they will outgrow the bag. Then you can transplant them to a pot if you like, or take cuttings and start another baggie terrarium.

Like all of our programs, Orchid Show field trips inspire young people to learn more about plants! Visit our website at for more information about these programs. 

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Winter Infographic

The Graphic Gardeners —  January 16, 2015 — 1 Comment

Think plants look brown and dead in winter? There’s plenty of life still going on beneath the surface!

ILLUSTRATION: An infographic about winter.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Twenty years ago, I was running school field trip programs at the Chicago Botanic Garden when then-education manager Alan Rossman received a grant to start a brand new program called “College First.” This program would use the Garden site and staff to introduce 12 students from three Chicago Public Schools to careers in the green industry. He hired retired teacher Gwen Yvonne Greenwood to coordinate the program and enlist staff from all over the Garden to mentor and teach these young people.

PHOTO: Six high school students are posing in the Fruit and Vegetable Garden, wearing dark green uniform College First T-shirts

These six students from 2003 are all college grads with jobs now.

At the time, there weren’t many programs like College First anywhere in the country. College First was even unique among the other museum teen program start-ups, in that our goals were not merely to make the institution more relevant to this age group, but also to provide a springboard to meaningful careers in science-related fields. Who knew that 20 years later, with some changes and improvements along the way, this small program would evolve and grow into the Science Career Continuum we have today?

We now bring 60 students (like Mely Guzman, whom I blogged about earlier this year) from all over Chicago to the Garden every summer and expose them to environmental and conservation sciences, with the hope that a few of them will be inspired to pursue a career in this field, and maybe go on to do something important for our planet. To date, College First has served more than 500 students from 116 schools. The majority of them have attended college and have entered—or are entering—productive careers. Many of them have pursued science-related careers as a direct result of their experiences at the Garden.

PHOTO: At the reception of the College First 20-year reunion.

Program manager, Amaris Alanis Ribeiro (standing on the right) reminds a group of former students to visit Wonderland Express after they are finished eating.

We celebrated the success of College First on December 14, with a reunion party at the Garden, including a visit to Wonderland Express, for all past students, instructors, mentors, donors, and their families. More than 200 people attended the event. In between the many reunion hugs, congratulations, and words of encouragement for current students, we gave all program participants an opportunity to reflect on their experiences by telling us their stories on video, writing comments on a talk-back wall, and tweeting about the event while a live Twitter feed displayed the comments.

PHOTO: College First participants shared their thoughts and feelings on a mural outside the auditorium.

College First participants shared their thoughts and feelings on the comment wall outside the auditorium.

A former program coordinator, William Moss, is now a gardening guru and media celebrity. (Even our instructors have moved on to great things in their careers!) William presided as master of ceremonies during a presentation to recognize all the people who have made this program possible. We honored staff mentors, Louise Egerton-Warburton, Jeremie Fant, and Tom Soulsby as outstanding mentors. The College First 20th Anniversary event was made possible by the generous support of Joel Friedman of the Alvin H. Baum Family Fund. Awards were presented to Annette Kleinman and family of the Sheridan Foundation, the W.P. & H.B. White Foundation, and the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation for their generous financial support over the years.

PHOTO: William Moss at the podium.

William Moss—television celebrity, author, gardener, and all-around good guy—helped us to honor all the people who have made this program successful.

For me, this was a very rewarding event. It was such a pleasure to see so many past and present students coming together and sharing in the success of this program, especially those who are now adults with spouses and children of their own. This group represents our scientific future.

PHOTO: Group photo of past College First participants.

A total of 57 past and present College First participants attended the celebration and posed for a picture. Wow!

I wish each and every one of these smart and talented young people a happy new year and all the best in their bright futures!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and