Monday, October 09, 2023

A Children's Garden

As a play-based educator, I came to understand that my role with young children was not primarily to "teach" them anything, but rather to create an environment that offered a variety of opportunities for the children to explore, discover, experiment, create, and grow. At our urban preschool, one of the biggest challenges was to include the natural world in the midst of a concrete jungle. 

We were lucky in that our playground came with a dozen mature evergreens, mostly cedars, as well as several large lilacs. In late spring, the invasive blackberries that thrived in the forgotten strip of no-man's land below the playground would send their thorny branches over and through the fence. And all of this was enough to attract some wildlife, mostly crows, spiders, and insects, although we were occasionally visited by raccoons, rats, and squirrels, and even a bald eagle who once perched in a treetop to devour a pigeon it had caught, raining gray feathers to the ground below.

These were, of course, opportunities for the children to connect with nature, but as the curator of our space, I thought we could do more. One weekend day, I cycled the Burke-Gilman trail that ran along the canal just down the hill from the school and filled my backpack with the seeds of wild plants that thrived, without human intervention, along the sides of the bike track. I figured these were plants that had evolved to do well in our climate without human intervention. But sadly, I quickly learned that our active preschool playground would prove too harsh an environment for even dandelions to grow. (I'm not kidding, I failed to propagate dandelions!)

The next attempt was to build raised planting beds in the bullseye of the space. We focused on things the children could eat, like herbs, kale, lettuces, radishes. We grew a spindly grape vine, strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries. We grew tomotoes, cucumbers, snap peas, and green beans. Frustratingly, however, the bulk of the growing season in Seattle takes place in the summer when we weren't in school. 

In an attempt to extend the growing season, then, we raised money, and with the help of a graduate level architecture class from the University of Washington, built a wonderful greenhouse around which were included a stairway of new and bigger beds. For the next couple years, I spent several hours a day, after school and on weekends, puttering around in the greenhouse, propagating and tending plants for the children. Of course, the kids participated as well, but proper gardening like this needs more than just the sporadic and fanciful attentions of young children, so the project of creating a thriving garden fell to me and  a handful of other adults, which is to say, the parents of the children.

I had the idea to try growing asparagus. No one I knew had ever grown it, but our local gardening center told me that they, as a plant, "thrive on neglect" and that I shouldn't expect much for a year or two. I dedicated an out-of-the-way bed to asparagus, and as advised, more or less left it alone, other than occasional watering. And sure enough, one day we discovered dozens of pencil thin, tender blades which we ate raw.

Meanwhile, our community energy around gardening had waned. Our playground beds had become a tangle of last years foliage, through which only the heartiest of sprouts could wind their way. For instance our cilantro had gone to flower, then seed, as had our radishes. We adults saw this as a kind of gardening failure, but the children discovered that cilantro seeds (coriander) made a crunchy, earthy little snack; that the tiny radish blossoms contained a surprising spiciness. The bare stalks that were all that were left from the kale we had planted, continued to produce itty bitty new leaves which the children would eat the moment they emerged, declaring them delicious. The grape leaves were shockingly tart, making us squirm and giggle as we chewed them, even if we never saw an actual grape fruit. The children would pick the hard, green, unripe berries to use in their games and mix in their potions. They made bouquets of the tiny flowers that bloomed on the herb and berry plants. They used the dry, dead stems and tops to decorate their fairy houses and crowns. 

This was not something I noticed all at once, but gradually. No one would ever look at our garden and think it lovely, but there were always children nosing around in those beds, finding worms and roly polies, spiders and lady bug larvae. Some of the plants grew, some became soil, the dead got all mixed up with the living; the crops with the weeds. Every now and then a new plant would emerge and we would watch to see what it did. Some of them grew into something, others disappeared, probably into a batch of mud soup.

Gardens, as we typically think of them are not really nature even though they are made from natural things. Gardens are something that must be controlled, weeded, and maintained. When you consider the tools we use on our gardens -- lawnmowers, leaf blowers, saws, shears, spades, hoes, fertilizers -- it's almost as if traditional gardening is an attack on nature because much of what we do as we garden is designed to prevent things that are trying to grow from growing. Or at least cause them to grow in the manner in which we've pre-determined for them, rather than how they would choose to grow if left alone. Gardening requires us to work, whereas nature asks nothing from us except connection.

At one point I'd envisioned our long term gardening project as a way to stock our snack table. Wouldn't that be something, I thought, an urban preschool farm! But as I sat outside crunching on those raw asperagus stalks, products of neglect, alongside children who had previously hated asparagus, as I savored those radish seeds and chewed on those grape leaves, as I learned to see the beauty in a bouquet of strawberry blossoms rather than the tragedy of an entire season of fruit being wiped out in one swoop, I found myself in an easygoing relationship with these plants that I'd previously fussed over. And I wasn't the only one. The insects and worms and spiders were at home there as well. As were the children, who engaged with this version of the natural world directly and without all those rules and cautions that are part of the definition of traditional gardening. If we wanted to look at the root of a carrot, we could, and no one scolded us to wait because it it wasn't "ready."

Our garden wasn't really a garden any longer, at least not in the sense in which we usually apply the term. It was a place for plants to live their lives alongside young children and vice versa, both responding to their environment according to their nature. It was a place in which adults had ceased trying to control anyone or anything; an environment in which to explore, discover, experiment, create, and grow.


"This inspiring book is essential reading for every family choosing a preschool, every teacher working with young children, and every citizen who wonders how we can raise children who will make the world a better place." ~Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids

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