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Saturday, May 24, 2014

Seeds. Leaves. Plants. Life.

"We shall walk together on this path of life, 
for all things are part of the universe, 
and are connected with each other to form one whole unity."
Maria Montessori

All year long the children are immersed in the plant world at Chickadee, and with the irrepressible, rising energy of spring, even more so.  Writing this one sentence recalled in my mind the great lines of Dylan Thomas' poem:  "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower / Drives my green age...."  The children's "green age" is happening now!  So it is natural that, while we are immersed in the driving forces of spring, we focus a beam of light within our curriculum on the green and growing plant kingdom.  We have been weaving in and out of seeds and flowers and sprouts and trees, and all the while the children have been embracing their unique and daily encounters with nature outside our doors.

Where does it begin for a child, this sense of connection with nature?  What does he first notice?  When does it start to come together as a conscious awareness that humans and animals live alongside plants in this world, that we depend upon plants for life itself?  How does the inherent joy and beauty of being in nature connect with their developing intelligence?  I know I do not know.  I can only offer some small and beautiful possibilities, and let the children's unique spirits unfold on their own timetable.

Perhaps for some it happens out in the forest, as a group of friends lean against trees and create and re-create their stick fort masterpieces?

Maybe for some others it comes more deeply or easily with putting fingers and hands into the earth, planting seeds, and then witnessing their growth?


Or could it be that a quiet and solo encounter with one growing thing in the forest or garden, be it a mushroom or a trillium or a daffodil, first kindles the child's sense of connectedness and wonder?

For some children the magic may happen most powerfully in the inviting branches of a tree, the very act of climbing generating their awe.

Or might this secret of childhood lie hidden in the work of planting a vegetable that will be with us all summer, sharing its bounty?

Because we are so connected with one another within this children's house, might it be that all of these experiences combine together, so that we each become enriched by everyone else's consciousness?  I like to think that is so.  I talk to the children as if that were so.  And I give botany lessons as if that were so. The whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts, and each child becomes greater than her own individual experiences.   We weave it all together in this shared life of ours. 

One of Dr. Montessori's brilliant insights was that the children benefit by breaking down the whole into its parts.  Botany is a perfect example:  we have cards and puzzles to learn about the parts of a plant, a tree, a flower, and a leaf, so part of this weaving is a very careful set of lessons and materials.  We do seed experiments and look closely at each stage of sprouting.  We pick flowers and learn some simple science that drives their beauty.  This child has put out the cards which illustrate the parts of a flower, matched up the puzzle pieces, and now she is looking at a single flower with a magnifying glass.  Many children have done this now, and more will in coming weeks.

Then I showed Cherry how to dissect a few flowers into their parts. And here is the result:  her careful layout of stem, sepals, petals, stamens, and pistil.

We also have a set of cards for learning some simple leaf classification, demonstrating with pictures the basic shapes, vein patterns, and leaf margins. Once they get the idea, this work involves their heading outside to look for different kinds of leaves, which is always a cause for delight and excitement. Fern, big leaf maple, duck's foot, Oregon grape, coltsfoot - so many possibilities so close at hand.  And the children really are learning to identify them.

Most of these activities are done in small groups or individually.  But also running through these weeks have been large group lessons on some of the awesome impacts of plant life, facts such as these (lest we adults forget):   We are eating plants all of the time, even when we're eating eggs or milk or meat.  We are eating the sunlight that plants turned into food.  Our houses are made of plants. We are breathing the air that plants help create. 

Recently, the older children wrote some small/big "reports" to share some of this budding knowledge. Each report began with the children spelling out the words as best they can, with a movable alphabet, then pencil on paper, then the illustration. This is a big work for 4-, 5-, and 6-year-olds.  Big truths put into few and potent words.

"a leaf is green"  
I told them about the amazing green pigment called chlorophyll,
which takes the energy of sunlight  and turns it into food for the plant.
Think of it - making food from sunlight!  We can't do that!
Cherry brought in a big leaf maple leaf from the forest and traced it for this one.

"leafs have Many shapes"
So very many shapes, just within our mini-ecosystem.
Leaf hunts are satisfying and fun.  
Drawing different leaf shapes was a lovely project for an artist like Cara.

"the Sun makes plants gro"
Roots bring up water, some minerals, and plant nutrients, but the sun is the source of all plant energy.  Rex was intent on showing a small plant and then a tall one, reaching for more sunlight. What happens when a plant gets no sun?  
That's our next plant experiment.

"the leaf veiNs carry foob(d) to the plaNt"
Noah had a plant lying next to his paper, so this is a real nature sketch,
and for him, a lot of written words.

"fern has spores"
The sword ferns dominate our forest understory, 
and we notice that they don't make flowers.
Isabel knew that they have spores instead, on the underside of their leaves.

"a leaf iz a solr panel"
This one was a scientific leap of imagination!  Collin excitedly noticed the parallel between a leaf and a solar panel, both collecting energy from the sun, 
and then he drew it - sunlight on leaf, sunlight on solar panel.

"Plants make oxijn"
We talk about the great circle of life, plants releasing oxygen for animals, 
and animals including us breathing out carbon dioxide for the plants.
Brady was uneasy because he knew that oxygen was invisible, 
but he had to show it somehow.

The circling of the seasons brings us new and renewed experiences with the plant kingdom, again and again, and the learning deepens and evolves over time.   Some experiences are one-time adventures. This is the western hemlock that fell from our neighbor's place across our fence back in February - talk about being immersed in plant life!  The kids thought that was a great day, and indeed it was.
Kids and plants = Joy.