Gardening with Children: with Dr. Carver

This is the first post in a series on Gardening with Children that I will be doing throughout the year. One of my favorite volunteer activities is my work in schools and educational gardens teaching children about nature and gardening. The gardening lessons tie in with reading, math, art, nutrition, and/or science. My goal is to post a lesson or activity geared toward children once a month. I hope you will find these posts informative and useful.

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Children love good stories. Literature is a great way to connect children with the garden and natural world. There is a wide selection of garden and ecology-themed books available. One of my favorites is In the Garden with Dr. Carver (written by Susan Grigsby and illustrated by Nicole Tadgell). This book is a piece of historical fiction which looks at the work of Dr. George Washington Carver through the eyes of a child. The story is set in the 1900's in the rural South and illustrates how Dr. Carver brought his classroom to the people by roaming the countryside with a "funny looking wagon" pulled by a mule which was filled with examples of his discoveries in the laboratory (the first moveable classroom).

In the story he visits a local garden with the children and encourages them to observe the importance of the interactions of plants and insects and their dependence on one another.

I like this book because it illustrates to children the importance of being close observers of plants and animals and encourages them to be good stewards of the natural world. There are many good lessons to be gleamed from this book that apply to student and adult gardeners alike.

"Listen to the plants, and they'll tell you what they need "

Activity: Go outside to the school garden and have each student find a place to sit for 15 to 20 minutes. Ask them to observe the plot in front of them and then have them sketch the leaves, stems or flowers they see. Ask them to also write down the sounds they hear, the scents they smell and the activities they witness.

Discussion: What do you think Dr. Carver meant when he said that we should listen to the plants to find out what they need? How did Sally know what the rosebush needed? What clues did she observe to figure this out?

"Before you change or destroy something, you need to understand why it exists and its relationship with the rest of nature"

Activity: Brainstorm with students to create a list of plants, trees, creatures and other elements such as water features, etc. in their classroom garden. Divide the list among the students and ask them to answer research questions about their topic and to draw it. Using a large wall, hang the students' art work and connect the pages with yarn, creating the strings of the web.

Discussion: What goes in the center of the web? Which lines are food chains? Is everything connected? What happens if one link is removed? 

"Plants, like people, need nutritious food to help them grow"

Activity: Explain to the students how to make a good compost pile applying the concepts of balancing brown for carbon and green for nitrogen. Build a compost bin (using wooden pallets, cinder blocks, plastic bin with holes drilled to bottom, etc.).

Discussion: What do plants need to be healthy? What do people need to be healthy? Which needs are shared and which are different? Where do plants get the things they need? What happens if they can't get those things? What might cause one of these things to not be available?

"So much of what people waste can be put to good use"

Activity:  (reduce, reuse, recycle...find your own treasures) Have the students identify plants in the garden. Then create garden labels using items such as old paint sticks, plastic knives, Popsicle sticks, clothes pins, and rocks. Be creative and think outside the box!

Discussion:  What does it mean to recycle? What items that get sent to the dump/landfill could be reused? How could these things be used in a different way?

These are just a few possible lessons to be pulled from this book. There are many more activities and discussions related to social studies, math, poetry and gardening. I definitely recommend this book as a jumping off point for introducing gardening and the natural world to children.

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One of my favorite lines out of the book:
"Some people come in and out of your life, as quick as a hummingbird darting at a trumpet vine. And some of them, when gone, leave something behind that sticks in your heart or mind. It wraps around you like the tendrils of a vine."

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A little on the life of George Washington Carver:
Dr. George Washington Carver is best known as the inventor of peanut butter. He was a botanist, chemist and inventor whose work revived the agricultural economy of the South.

Carver was a frail and sickly child and unable to work in the fields so he helped his aunt in her garden. He spent his free hours wandering the nearby woods collecting rocks and flowers which sparked his lifelong love with nature. He became known as the "plant doctor" because he helped friends and neighbors nurture sick plants back to health.  

He studied music and art at Simpson College (Iowa). He was an accomplished painter and his work was displayed at the 1893 World's Fair. His interest in horticulture took him to what is today Iowa State University where he graduated and became the school's first African-American faculty member. Booker T. Washington persuaded Carver to join the faculty at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial School (Alabama) to conduct agricultural research. he remained at this institution conducting research that gained him much worldwide acclaim.

During this time, Southern agriculture was in serious decline as the result of many decades of single-crop cotton cultivation that left the soil depleted of nitrogen. Carver discovered that the soil could be revitalized by planting peanuts and soybeans. And so he began advocating crop rotation. This increased the cotton yield but farmers were left with a surplus of peanuts in alternate years which sold at lower prices. Carver began to experiment with peanuts and developed more than 300 uses for this humble legume from cooking oil to peanut butter. After a while the demand for peanuts had increased and it was no longer a financial sacrifice for farmers.

Carver was a man well before his time. Upon his death Carver contributed his entire life savings to establishing a research institute at Tuskegee.

An excellent site for elementary plant science is The Missouri Botanical Garden's Biology of Plants
Find information about Dr. Carves and his work as an inventor, researcher and humanitarian here and here


  1. Excellent post! Introducing children to gardening through books is wonderful. I created a pinerest board devoted to children's picture books with gardening themes if you'd like to check it out:

    1. Love all your pinterest boards! What a great resource of books you have pinned! Following...

  2. can you just come over and teach Brooke and Audrey (and me?!) xo!

  3. Great post! My 3 children have always gardened with me since they could walk. I started them out weeding and planting pumpkin seeds. I seriously think my now 8 year old has a talent with growing pumpkins! The seeds she planted always turned out to be the most beautiful pumpkins. My youngest, age 2, is still learning the difference between the weeds and the herbs. So sometimes my little weeder pulls out the thyme :-)

    1. Sounds like your 8 yo has a green thumb! It is wonderful that you spend time in the garden with your children. They will learn a lot from you about gardening and life!

  4. Sounds like a great book. Makes me think of a book called The Little Gardeners that I read to my kids when they were small. Much more basic than Carver's book, but it does help small kids understand things like the seasons and the basics of growing food.

    They haven't turned into gardeners yet, but there is still time.

  5. I'm sure children would enjoy these activities very much. You've got some great ideas.

  6. What great ideas for teaching children. I also love the thought of being a "close observer". That is exactly what we become when we start gardening. I am hoping to teach my love of gardening to my grandchildren, so I just may have to check out this book.

  7. I had no idea you volunteered with children. What a great thing to do. So many kids don't know anything about the natural world around them anymore - seems everyone is in organized activities these days and gone are the empty lots full of weeds and insects. No time to just wander and explore, learning on their own.

  8. Fabulous Karin...I love the book and all your activities. When I was teaching I used plants and was planning a teaching garden before I left. I look forward to more posts Karin...I hope teachers and schools see and use your work here!

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  10. Great book. I have designed a teaching garden for kids at a local school. I was asked by my MG group to do the design work and they would do the installation. Of course it was a pro bono publico job. It was very enjoyable and this book would have been a great help to understand the student teacher interaction and the activities in which the kids participated. I do a lot of interviews to come up with design, but knowing it before hand would have been wonderful. The garden was designed to incorporate all the senses and also to have an element of fun. It was multilevel for kids of all abilities.

    1. Knowing your attention to detail and design talent I am sure the garden is incredible! School gardens are a challenge. Often those who are charged with taking on these projects don't know that much about gardening so they are not always sure what there needs are until they get into it so all the interviewing may not be that helpful. Recently, I was part of a focus group to gather information for creating a children's garden. The needs/knowledge/uses was so wide-ranging with the group of teachers/leaders/curriculum developers. One of the key issues that often is overlooked is maintenance and watering during the summer months when students/teachers are not around to care for the garden and this is the time when it is most needed. I think it is great that you are able to do some pro bono work for your community!

    2. You know, what you mentioned was the most challenging. Too many cooks in the kitchen so to speak. All not knowing how to cook! On paid jobs, the clients trust the designer, on free jobs everyone has a say and often with unreasonable demands. But you still have to treat them as a 'client' and listen to them as if valuing their suggestions. I worked on designing two school buildings when I worked at the firm and that was less a problem than the designing the a school's teaching garden. Go figure.

  11. What a great lesson Karin. What age were the kids you taught this lesson? I am sending the link to my two girls, they both teach 6th grade. Fun lessons are always appreciated!

    1. I usually teach children 3rd-5th grade but most lessons can be simplified for 2nd graders or more challenging for 6th graders. I have also taught children in gifted programs so I find lessons that are flexible and can be adapted based on the knowledge that students are most useful.

  12. Great Post, I started off my business from gardening with my kids. We always used to garden however due to safety reasons I would never let them use any of the tools. I went to my local garden centre and picked up some kids garden tools. They loved using them!


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One of my favorite things about blogging is the conversation with readers. Leave a comment and let's get talking. ~Karin

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