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How to Teach Kids Through Nature, with the Denver Botanic Gardens

Photo Courtesy of The Denver Botanic GardensThe Mordecai Children’s Garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens is a 3-acre interactive learning space. It is a place of great natural beauty, with alpine plants, a pond, stream, grasslands,and a view of the Rockies, but it is first and foremost a place of imagination. On a typical day you will find toddlers running down the path in fairy costumes and kids moving small logs to create fortresses. The energy of kids who are actively learning at the garden is palpable. For Denver-area readers, the Botanic Gardens offer regular programming to teach children, including Seedlings Classes, Homeschool Days, and Family Fun Nights, among others. Today, Children’s Program Manager, Claudia Kiesenhofer draws from the many techniques that she uses at the garden to give us some advice on teaching kids through nature.

Bring the Outdoors into Your Routine

We all know that kids these days are glued to TV screens and iPads, so Kiesenhofer’s first bit of wisdom is simple: “The best advice that I can give is to first of all bring them to nature. Get them outside. Ideally, you have a garden; if not, maybe there is a park close by where you can get them out and get them in nature.”

Help Them Connect to Nature

At the Mordecai Children’s Garden, you will find written prompts posted throughout. Plant beds feature small signs asking kids about textures and shapes. These tools help kids learn about the outdoors but they also get them engaged with their environment. Kiesenhofer claims you can use a similar technique at home. “I think kids are not really used to just playing on their own, so they might need a few questions, like What can you find here? or Which shapes and colors do you see? For little kids, ask them to find a leaf that is bigger than their hand for instance. It allows them to be aware of what’s around them. Or if they are older, you can ask them about a specific plant to find, so they connect with it.”

Engage the Senses

Kiesenhofer claims, “Involving your senses is definitely important for smaller kids. For example, in fall use a pumpkin. Ask the kids to touch it, feel it, smell it. Let them manipulate the material in different ways. A pumpkin looks very different on the inside than it does on the outside and it smells very different. Ask them what they can do with a pumpkin. Let them taste something made of it, draw a picture of it. Use all of the different creative ways to express themselves and use all of their senses because then they really experience what they are learning. I think that’s very important.”

Provide Unstructured Playtime

Kids at the Mordecai Children’s Garden often appear to be in their own worlds. There is a stage for impromptu performances, complete with costumes, and numerous other vehicles for learning and imagination. Kiesenhofer says that this free-spirited play is actually essential for learning. “I think one of the wonderful things we offer in our garden is unstructured playtime. And many parents are very good at that. Maybe the kids need a little bit of input in the beginning, like What can you find here? What can you do here? Is there anything you want to build? Is there an interesting animal you want to be? And then give them some time to actually explore. Have them feel and touch plants out of their own interests and motivations. I think it’s very rare in our children’s lives that they actually have the time to figure out what they want to do. Unstructured time is very rare for kids, and it’s important that they have time to really learn through things. A great deal of learning comes through play.”

Use Tasks to Hold Their Attention

Anyone who has ever taken a class of students outside knows that it’s easy for them to get distracted. Kiesenhofer has some advice for keeping kids focused in nature. “I think it’s good to let them fulfill a few tasks. Set some very basic rules. When we have kids here we give them journals and with the journals they can do activities at different stations. It’s a more unguided experience but they know they need to fill their journals out. So it’s learning through doing. That is something that helps them focus and as a leader you can always refer to that to focus them back on the task.”

Provide Prompts for Imagination

Employees at the Mordecai Children’s Garden station logs, stuffed animals, and other toys throughout the environment. This allows children to tap into their imagination and make things as they play. Kiesenhofer explains, “What we offer here is very simple. There are not any explanations on how to use the materials. They are just there. And if children have the chance to be in these situations they become very creative.”

Click here for more information on the Mordecai Children’s Garden!