• Anita Demitroff

Making Plants Come Alive

With the arrival of Spring, we often cover topics like baby animals and plants. Because these items weave their way into the school program year after year, we often need to find new activities to maintain children's interest and our motivation. Here are some simple and practical options for working with plants.

It is so easy to take a hands-on approach with plants, yet we assume that someone else in the system will have already done so.

Moreover, the rush to cover the syllabus may leave us with little time, especially if the results of a hands-on activity are not immediate.

A simple start is to just bring in plants- a piece of bamboo from a garden centre is ideal, to see first-hand the roots, stems and leaves. We can show examples of real seeds and examine how plants have air travelling or clothes-sticking variations. Or we can set tasks for children to do outside. A straightforward one is to count the varieties of wild flowers on our way to school or along a path we take on a family walk.

Our Portuguese partners at Superinventors on the Move, an incredible Erasmus Plus project, propose a brilliant idea: to see how many seeds stick to our socks if we walk in a field without our shoes!

By the way, Fran Seftel from the project and her learners also love using seed bombs.

Planting a seed on a kitchen towel is an activity that is usually successful, but often repeated. Here are some alternatives.

Place clay balls on a metal tray. Rest your cuttings on the top and sprinkle water. After a week, turf and grass seeds can be sprinkled on top. Keep moist.

This idea comes from the Big Book of Fun (L. Painter, ed.), which has a whole unit on gardening ideas. A simple task we came up with is to peel the outer shell of garlic cloves and then place the hairy ends of the cloves in a shallow tray with water. Within a few days these will sprout and then our pupils can take them home to plant in a medium pot. A third way of simplifying the gardening experience is to transfer the “babies” from an aloe plant to another pot.

Quite often we focus so much on the scientific aspects that we overlook the cultural ones. What are the properties attributed to each plant in our culture? For instance, rosemary is linked to memory.

As children, we made daisy chains and converted a blade of grass into a whistle. One idea from a teacher’s own family background is to hold a buttercup next to our arms to see if there is really a relationship between someone's taste for butter and whether or not the yellow flower reflects a golden glow onto our skin.

Food is another cultural aspect. Herbs are made with leaves, so we can explore our spice cupboards to see how many we can recognise and try those that are unfamiliar.

We may also be surprised to discover that the nettle leaves that sting our bare legs in summer are actually a common soup ingredient in Eastern Europe. Looking at products made with pods and seeds is another option. Finally, even Fourth of Primary pupils will find it challenging to classify the vegetables in their homes according to root, fruit, stalk or leaves.

When we study plants, we can try to solve conundrums in our community. Why are there already new figs on one tree on our walk, while the one further up the hill is still bare in late April? We can start to think about hours of sunlight and wetter versus drier locations. On a walk in the forest, for example in the Fragas do Eume natural reserve in Galicia, we come across grapes growing over the foot path. Their presence can be the subject of some supposition. Did some walkers eat them and spit out the seeds? Or was it the workers from the power plant, who had their lunches on their way up the hill in the days before cars got them to work?

We had a similar mystery in the plot of land in front of the language school, which had winter squash growing among the weeds. One teacher's father would provide us with these to decorate for autumn. Once they served their purpose, we tossed them in the lot, only to find they had generated new life!

On our way to school, we may also encounter interlopers: foreign plants that are invasive. We can look closely at them, where they are from originally and the reasons they had been brought over to our country.Road engineers brought pampa grass as a decorative element, while many property owners in Spain and Portugal started to plant eucalyptus because it’s a fast-growing tree. However, they need a lot of water, often competing with native plants.

When we look at these intruders, it's a moment to introduce the idea that there are advantages and disadvantages to each decision and we can see a link between Social and Natural Science.

Another cross-curricular link is through Art. By boiling flowers, we can make water colours, which provide a delicate contrast to the bold textures of soil paint. When we start, we can make predictions about which blossoms will produce the most intense colours. The results are surprising. Alternatively, we can use flowers, individually or in bunches, as a paintbrush.

A simple, mess-free exercise is to look at the decorative elements of our house to see how plants are represented and to discuss how these make us feel: peaceful or relaxed.

We can also consider the many ways in which the pictures or patterns have been produced.

Plants come into our lives in numerous forms, so it’s easier than we think to bring our learners into direct contact with them. Fran and I have shared our favourites. What ideas have you cultivated in your schools?

By Ana Demitroff

Bio: Ana has been in the classroom longer than she cares to admit, but she still gets a kick from the experience and continues to learn from her colleagues and students at the You First Language Centre.