I understand why a commercial nursery would prefer that touring groups of preschoolers not touch the plants. They're merchandise, after all, and too much touching of things not make of plastic will eventually render them unsalable.
Thankfully our hosts at Swansons Nursery yesterday provided the kids with opportunities to get their hands involved in their learning.
That's often a challenge on field trips, especially when we're seeing the back rooms of places like grocery stores, restaurants, and bakeries: "Don't touch." But really, who can resist plunging a hand into a bag of hard red wheat berries? Who really knows anything at all about a pumpkin's pith without having touched or smelled it?
I know, I thought pumpkin guts were called "pulp" until our guide Justin, who was quite talented at looking the other way when little hands needed to feel something, told us it's called "pith."
And that dirt we used in our pumpkin pots? Not dirt. "At Swanson's we call it soil." As Isak informed us later, "Soil is kind of like dirt."
Some of us already knew that our purple flowers were called "pansies" and most of us jammed our nosed into them to test the fragrance. And all of us knew that the white threads laced into the soil were "roots."
I hadn't even been aware that there would be a hay maze. It was a good way to get our whole bodies involved.
I took lots of pictures of the hay maze play, but most of them turned out like this one, just hay, no kids.
We were moving fast, startling one another at the corners, getting lost, finding our way, doing all the regular hay maze stuff. We weren't supposed to throw the hay, but what are you going to do once you have a fist full of it? We weren't supposed to climb on the tops of the hay bales, but once you're already up there you might as well jump down. We made a token effort to remind the kids to follow the rules, and most of them did, but sometimes the intensity of learning something new fills up our entire existence, body, mind, and soul, and we have to count on the grown-up people, at least temporarily, to be the keepers of right and wrong.
For the first time in 9 years of field trips, I had to break out a bandage when Charlie B. learned that touching hay, if you do it just the right (or wrong) way, can cut you. There's always something new to learn.
After the hay maze, we washed our hands and refueled with a snack of yoghurt and oranges before Justin took us on a tour of the plants.
Justin looked the other way when the kids rushed to touch this "pine tree" (at least until they started picking off the needles). They'd been told "don't touch," but there are rules and there's learning. Some of the kids already knew that pines produce cones. Justin told us that cone bearing trees are called "conifers." We also learned the world "evergreen."
Trees with leaves are "deciduous" and they are not evergreen.
"Shrubs" or "bushes" are small trees.
We learned the word "perennial," and like the idea that the plants come back to life each spring.
When we passed through the greenhouse, we saw plants not native to the Northwest, including a kind of fruit plant called a "banana tree." We weren't supposed to touch it, but almost everyone did, lightly, as we past. How often to you get to touch the leaf of a banana tree?
When Cora later felt an exotic broad leaf, her friend Ruby reminded her "don't touch." Then she whispered to me, "She was touching it so I told her not to." We wrinkled our noses at each other knowingly, nodding about an important responsibility of citizenship well-done.
When we got to the herbs, Justin reminded us again not to touch. We put our hands behind our backs as a reminder.
Although we did get to use our noses. We recognized the rosemary and lavender because those are plants we have in our own garden at school. Then, automatically, just a step in the learning process, almost every child took hold of a rosemary spring, the smelled the scent it left on his own palm.
When we got to the "annuals," the flowers, we put our hands and noses to work. By now, no one was saying "don't touch." One of the kids asked, "Why do the plants die?" Justin answered, "Because it gets too cold."
When it finally came time to meet Swansons' chickens Millie and Margaret, we learned that one of them had just laid eggs and had become "protective." Justin told us that we would get our fingers pecked if we stuck them through the wire mesh.
And for once, no one touched. They took Justin at his word.
Back at school, we talked about what we'd seen, done, felt, smelled and heard. Most of us liked the hay maze the best. I worried that although we'd been on our feet the entire time, there had still been just a touch too much "lecturing" for a preschool field trip, but I think I was wrong.
I ran down my notes, both as a way to reinforce the experience for the children, but also as a kind of experiment to see what had really sunk in.
Nearly all of them remembered and understood the words "pith," "soil," "pansy" and "roots."
None of them remembered "conifer," but several were able to shout out "Evergreen!" and "Pine tree!"
"Deciduous" is a hard word for an easy concept. We practiced pronouncing it a few times.
"Shrubs," "banana tree," "perennial," "annual," "protective," and "Millie" (although no one recalled the name Margaret, perhaps she wasn't the protective one!) are also all now words that are part of our community's vocabulary. We learned them with our whole bodies.