A key ingredient to Montessori philosophy is the use of natural materials in the child’s environment, and what is more “natural” than a garden! Fall is the season I am always most grateful to be homeschooling, because we can spend so many lovely hours outside, immersed in “God’s textbook”. I remember one day last fall we were just getting started with a group lesson when we glanced out the windows to see the sky full of blowing leaves, and I interrupted my own plans to say, “would you like to try to catch a falling leaf?” I watched them run around gleefully for a half-hour chasing the leaves. It was such a joy to watch.
About 3 years ago I was able to convince my husband to let me tear up part of the lawn and add a “children’s garden” to our back yard. I don’t have much of a green thumb, but my kids have taught me to just enjoy watching it all with wonder. It takes years to see which kinds of plants “want” to grow with your particular soil, anyway. I consider this garden to be a science lab. You wouldn’t believe the variety of insects and animals which show up when you invite them with compost, water, flowers, fruit, and vegetables.
It’s true, I have a biology degree, but my confidence in teaching my children biology has mostly come from reading the gigantic book, the Handbook of Nature Study, by Anna Comstock. The 887 pages of reference demonstrate how to gently teach children to observe and understand all of the living things surrounding them. Learning to distinguish “real” from “imaginary” is easier for children who have been immersed in all of the diverse reality of nature.
A garden designed for children ideally has some of these characteristics:
The children can be involved in the processes of preparing soil, composting, planting, watering, and harvesting. Everything should be 100% organic. No weed killer, please! Just pull them by hand or let them grow!
- The children have free access to the garden, and a place to be inside of it. We use large stepping stones to show them where to walk, and we have a “digging area” where they can dig or make mud pie or stone soup to their hearts content.
Plants are chosen that have interesting colors, textures, flowers, or smells. Lemon balm, mint, catnip, lamb’s ears…
- At least one fruit or vegetable is included which is eaten regularly, so the children can see where their food comes from. Strawberries, peas, tomatoes…
- At least one root crop. Potatoes!
- Consider adding herbs or teas. Before we started gardening together, the children would turn up their noses at foods prepared with green spices (like parsley.) Now if they question what “specks” they see in an entree, I just have to say something like, “oh, that’s just cilantro from the garden,” to which they say, “oh! okay.” [I couldn’t make this stuff up, trust me.] We love growing chamomile and mint for tea. The children pick the leaves, we lay them out to dry, then they crumble them and put them into tea-bags. We drink herbal tea almost every day.
- Safety. Trowels, hoes, potato forks need to be put away if neighborhood kids or toddlers are going to be around! And if swarms of bees or wasps take a liking to one of your flowers, they will just have to be cut down.
As a final note, let me just say that the book A Kid’s Herb Book, by Lesley Tierra, has been very inspirational to me. It describes in detail child-friendly herbs and how to use them for natural remedies. I have used this book to make (from my garden) Echinacea tincture for immune boosting, a variety of teas, and Calendula bath water for my daughter with eczema. Yes, the book is a bit “new-agey,” but I’m pretty good at ignoring philosophies I don’t agree with, while appreciating the helpful information and ideas.