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Report From An Opinionated Gardener – January 21

When I was in college, I frequently passed by a poster hung on a professor’s office door. The photo showed a child bursting out of a school building, and the bold caption said, “The Real Classroom is Outdoors: Get Into It.”  At the time, I thought it was giving me permission to cut class. Forty years and two children (now men) later, I know that poster’s title to be wise.

It’s not that I think that children should be taught lessons outdoors, or given all of the numerous plastic toys for outside use. I believe that time spent just fooling around outside is valuable. When kids are encouraged to play outdoors with the materials that Mother Nature provides, it helps relate them to the natural world that will support them for the rest of their lives. No plants, no life, after all.

Messing around outdoors encourages creative thinking, and connects kids to others over the world as well. Unfortunately, many adults have forgotten how to amuse themselves without the aid of balls, bikes or motorized vehicles, so it’s understandably difficult for them to know how to show kids what to do in the natural world.

  1. Make a musical instrument from a dandelion stem: The trick here is to split the stem about ½ inch down on the top, making a reed. Blow hard, but only touch your lips to the outside of the stem…don’t touch your tongue! Dandelion stems taste terrible.
  2. What’s Living in the Lawn? As long as you aren’t routinely putting insecticides on your turf, and I hope you aren’t, there’s a lot of action going on in and under those blades of grass. Ants, beetles, earthworms and other critters rule this part of the yard.
  3. Rock Piles and Stone Mandalas: Collect a bunch of rocks. If they’re big, they can be stacked with the largest on the bottom. These make good ornaments or markers for dead pets. Feeling competitive? See who can make the tallest pile. Feeling artistic? Make a spiral. Feeling hostile? Create a target, not anything or anyone living, and throw them.
  4. Float Your Boat: Most leaves can easily be made into boats. Take fairly large leaf and see what direction it naturally bends. If it’s already cupped, you can float it as is, but by bending two sides up a bit, and holding them in place by pushing a thin stick in and out of those two sides, you can create a boat shape that will float. Experiment with adding sales made of sticks and additional leaves.
  5. Fortune Telling Flowers: OK, it’s difficult to predict the future, but if you have a flower with more than six petals, it couldn’t hurt to ask. This is a less romantic version of “He loves me, he loves me not.” Ask a question that can be answered by yes or no, and begin pulling the petals off.
  6. What’s Up There? It was immortalized in the musical, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown with good reason. Lying on your back, looking up at clouds and finding those that look like President Obama, an iPhone, or a three-legged dog is a great outdoor activity.
  7. Snoop on the (Wild) Neighbors: To find out who shares your yard, look for feathers, egg shells, bits of fur, tracks, and scat (animal poop).

These are just a few suggestions for kids outdoors. Ultimately, adults might suggest one or two activities, but after that, stand back and let the kids play.

When I was a kid I spent countless hours building stick houses. When Roberta Clark and I made these at the Master Gardener Demonstration Gardens one year, it was a trip down memory lane. (Pole beans and other annual vines were planted to grow up these structures. The point of this garden was to remind kids and their parents what is possible with some twine and yard-litter.

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