Blog Archives

Learning in the garden

I have loved to watch plants grow, going back at least to age 7 when I laid on the ground to look up, with pure appreciation, at a spindly young tree in front of my family’s apartment in Baltimore. Beginning with bulbs and flower seeds there, I have grown houseplants and/or vegetables in just about every place that I’ve lived since that time. While I personally find gardening very therapeutic, it is also a natural laboratory and a place where children can learn all sorts of valuable skills and life lessons.

Here are just a few of the things that children can learn in a garden:

  • The life cycle of plants and insects how they are able to transform over time without changing their identity. (Biology)
  • How energy is neither created or destroyed; it just changes form. (Physics)
  • That all soils are not the same. They have a history. (Geology)
  • That fertilizer and Ph make a difference. (Chemistry)
  • Fine motor skills: crumbling soil, seed handling, tying plants to a support, using hand tools, etc.
  • Gross motor skills: digging, reaching, balancing, pushing, pulling, lifting, squatting, etc.
  • Math: measurement (space, distance, volume, height, weight, time), counting, geometry (e.g. how shadows will be cast), estimation, etc.
  • Veggies always taste better when you grow them yourself. (Nutrition; Self-confidence)
  • Plants do best when they are put in location where their needs for sun, water and space can best be met. (Analysis; Organization)
  • There is a very close relationship between the effort that you put in and the success of the garden. (Cause/Effect; Work Ethic)
  • Things will happen in their own time. (Patience; Delayed gratification)
  • Sometimes your plants are damaged by forces you have no control over, like weather, disease and pests. (Resilience; Humility)
  • Next year things will be even better! (Planning; Optimism; Self-determination)

There must also be studies out there showing that gardening has mental health benefits, even though they may be more difficult to measure.  It’s never too early or too late to introduce children to gardening, whether at home, school or in a community garden.  If you are a gardener, share your love and experience with some young people.  It’s education, nature style!

Summer learning and fun on a shoestring

Many parents worry that the summer break from school will mean weeks of lost opportunities to learn.  Worst yet, they fear that their child may actually lose skills that they have worked so hard to develop.   Some parents will enroll their child in some sort of academic program, which may or may not be disguised as a “camp.”  Other parents would like to do this , but lack the financial resources to make it happen.  The quick tip for this last group of parents is to ask about financial assistance or scholarships that might make a big difference.

For folks who have limited funds, it is important to tap into other resources that may be available.  One of the important lessons that my own mother taught me is to not let pride stand in the way of giving your child a valuable experience.  When she worked as a housekeeper in the local YWCA, she somehow made it possible for me to take free classes on Saturdays.  It was at the Y that I learned how to sew, cook, dance, swim and speak French.  She then talked my school into allowing me, as a 4th grader, to sit in with the 6th grade class when they had their French lessons.  My brothers and I also had the opportunity to attend day and overnight camps at no cost other than our clothing and required gear. This contrast to our typical inner-city routine expanded our minds in ways that cannot be measured.

As a financially-challenged mom, I have applied that advocacy lesson to the benefit of my own children.  I ask about and stay on the lookout for programs and activities in my community.  My children have had the opportunity to participate in some expensive specialty programs at a fraction of the cost. There are also low-cost day camps offered by schools, park and recreation departm3 kids in natureents, churches and other non-profit groups.  The Cooperative Extension Service offers 4-H programs year-round where children and youth “Learn by Doing.” During summer there are 4-H traditional and specialty camps.  The Boy and Girl Scouts of America also offer summer camping opportunities, which may even be open to non-scouts if space is available.  Camps give children the chance to learn about science, nature, crafts, music, sports, etc. and develop in many areas including communication and social  skills.

Some private schools that have summer programs for academic enrichment or remediation have scholarships available for those who cannot afford to pay all or any of the cost, but they may not advertise them.  Your school guidance counselor or social worker may be aware of these opportunities, as well as other programs that may be targeted toward economically-disadvantaged or at-risk students, or groups that are under-represented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.  Some of those programs are offered on college and university campuses, making the dream of going to college seem more possible for the children who participate.

Educational websites and software (that can often be borrowed from your public library) offer “games” that can reinforce or develop skills while your child is having fun.  Even old-school activity books can sharpen a variety of skills in response to a complaint that “I’m bored!”  A walk in a park or a drive in the country can lead to interesting discoveries or raise questions that you can research together (e.g. let’s find out about that bug/rock/plant/historical marker, etc.).  Some businesses or factories offer tours, or at least may be willing to allow an employee to take the time to explain what kind of work they do.  Local museums and zoos often have discount days and many movie theaters offer special shows for kids at low-cost and may even come complete with popcorn!

The most important thing is to not forget that learning can happen everywhere and everyday, sometimes without your child realizing it.  In fact, it’s probably better that way.

Is my child ready for Kindergarten? late winter through the end of the school year, many parents of kindergarten-eligible children wrestle with the option of keeping them in preschool for one more year.  The child may have a late birthday that would make them among the youngest in their class.  Many parents assume that boys have a particular challenge with maturity that might make them good candidates to sit out a year and continue their social development before going on to the “big school.”  As always, these are very personal decisions that parents have to make based on their knowledge of their child and a host of other factors.

For parents of children who experience disabilities or significant developmental delays, things are a bit more complicated.  Many of these children already receive special education services as preschoolers.  Even if their child is making progress, many parents  think about what is typically expected in a regular kindergarten class these days and they don’t see their child as being able to meet those expectations.  Some children are also small for their age, can’t communicate well, have poor motor skills or are medically fragile.  The parents may conclude that their child is just not “ready” for kindergarten, and therefore should remain in preschool.  This may sound logical, or make sense on a parent gut level, but there is still more to consider.

1)  The child may not continue to receive the special education services that they now get as a preschooler.  The special education funding that comes from the Federal special education law, IDEA, is connected to the different parts of the law.   In general, a school system cannot use preschool money to serve school-aged children, and they will not be able to draw down funds for a school-aged child unless the child is enrolled in school.  That basically leaves no special education funds available to serve a school-aged child who is not enrolled in school, except for in a couple of specific rare circumstances.  Unless  you have another way to obtain the services that your child needs, you may have to weigh the cost of not having services against the benefit of more time.

2)  Are you just delaying the inevitable, or will this extra year be a game-changer?  Some children may be behind in their development due to challenges that have been reduced in terms of impact.  For example, a child may have had a visual,  hearing, or motor problem that has been corrected or compensated for.  Other children may have experienced medical conditions that limited their ability to interact with the world and do the developmental work of childhood.  For these children, having a year to grow and gain skills under much improved circumstances may make a tremendous difference in their overall functioning.  One could still debate whether planning for two years in kindergarten to allow time to catch up, would be just as, or more beneficial than the extra year in preschool.

3)  All children should be expected to make progress in their development if they are provided with stimulation and proper nutrition.  Many children, however, will probably continue to be functioning well below their typical peers, even after an extra year.  A 5-year-old with a chronic condition, who is functioning at the 3 year-old level, will probably still not be ready for kindergarten a year from now.  He’ll just be a year older.

4) Is kindergarten ready for your child?  That’s the real question.  Don’t think of school as a one-size-fits-all situation that your child has to fit into.  As a child with a disability and an individualized education program (IEP), your child is entitled to a free appropriate public education that meets her unique needs.  You and the rest of the IEP team will decide what that should look like for your child.  Your child can get extra support in the regular education setting, in a special education setting, or a combination of the two.  She can spend time with typically-developing children and still get the special education and related services that she needs.  She can have modifications and accommodations that will allow her to access her education and participate in school activities in a way that makes sense for her.  An individual health plan can be developed to address any special health or medical needs.

Instead of trying to keep  your child out of school until you can make a round peg fit into a square hole, you and your child’s IEP team can design a heart-shaped hole that the child you love can fit into with relative ease.  School doesn’t have to be scary.

Social skills can help some “problem behaviors”

Sometimes we forget that, other than basic bodily functions, just about everything that we do is learned behavior.  In schools we learn obvious things like reading, writing and math.  At home we learn communication, self-help and independent living skills, as well as how to function as part of a family group.  Social skills can, and should be taught everywhere that children can possibly find themselves.

Years ago, entire communities understood their responsibility to socialize children.  By “socialize”, I mean the process of teaching a child the written and unwritten rules of our society.  These rules include things such as how to behave in various situations, how to communicate appropriately, and what to expect from others.  Some rules are a little different for members of specific ethnic, religious or other cultural groups, while other rules are understood by almost all Americans.  In this amazing diverse country of ours, it’s a wonder how so many people are able to figure out how to function with all of the different things to consider.

The key to successfully socializing children is to not assume that they have figured it all out.  In any group of children of the same age in a typical school or community gathering, there will be children who are at very different points on the social learning curve.  Some will be able to easily meet expectations, and others will be clueless about the many factors that should be influencing how they behave.  They may not know that, most of the time, children are expected to speak differently to adults than with other children.  They may not understand the difference between  “inside” and “outside” voices.  They may not understand that personal space boundaries vary depending on the nature of people’s relationships with each other.  They may not realize that what counts as physical play in one setting, can be seen as physically aggressive in another.  They may not understand why certain questions or comments may insult, embarrass or frighten someone else.  They may not have noticed that the rules for male:female interaction have changed as they have gotten older.

Children and young people who violate our social rules may have difficulty making and keeping friends.  They may also find themselves being disciplined and isolated for unknowingly violating social rules.  If the punishment happens without instruction as to what they should do differently in the future, the child may continue to behave in a way that is considered inappropriate.  They could develop low self-esteem and possibly be frustrated to the point of either acting out or withdrawing from social interaction because they can’t figure out how to prevent the missteps from happening.

Children need to be taught social skills just like they are taught other skills! If a child behaves inappropriately, the adult in the environment should always stop and consider whether the behavior in question could be the result of a social skill deficit.  Always use these occasions as teachable moments, rather than presume malice and intentional disobedience.  Help them understand the context of that situation and describe alternative ways to behave or interpret the behavior of others.  Even if the child does “know better”, it won’t hurt to remind him of what doing better looks like.

Social skills are taught over time, so there is no quick fix that will instantly eliminate all behavior issues.  Building those skills, however, is really the only way to give that child or young adult the best chance for the high quality of life experience that we want for them.