From the Everyday to the Scientific: How Plants Inspire Kids to Figure Things Out

On a recent trip to Denver, I had the pleasure of visiting the Denver Botanical Garden with a friend. Although my friend’s son was not with us, we started our tour in the Mordecai Children’s Garden. We were greeted by a large map in the entryway that provided an overview of the main sections of the garden. Small green backpacks filled with “naturalist tools” lined the shelves opposite the map and several laminated scavenger hunts were also available for the taking.

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The Denver Botanical Garden Children’s Area encourages kids to dig, explore, & play.

As we wandered through the garden, I noticed many well-done interpretive signs in both English and Spanish. Kids were encouraged to engage in the space in various ways. Smaller signs described plants in fun way that caught kids attention. I don’t know how many botanical gardens have a children’s section, but I intend to find out.

Back at my friend’s house, I went on another type of garden tour…of a backyard garden and led by six-year-old Ben. He told me about the flowers and food growing there. I asked questions like, “What kind of flowers are these?” (Red and Yellow). and, “What kind of peppers are these?” (Green and Red). I explained that the green peppers (Anaheim) would eventually turn red and modeled how to read the plant labels (Petunias).

As we made our way from one fence to another, something caught my eye: the brown casing of poppy seed heads. I pulled one off to see if I could hear the tiny seeds shaking inside like a rattle. (I couldn’t.) What ensued was an impromptu investigation of these small seedpods. First, we crushed the top and tried to spill out seeds. We repeated this several times before finding a handful of teeny, tiny specks no larger than grains of pepper. Ben ran inside to get a Tupperware container. We continued to search for more seeds until we almost ran out of seedpods. We counted the number of pods that had seeds inside and wondered why some had seeds and others did not.

Ben found an immature seedpod just starting to form. He peeled it open to reveal the velvety peach petals scrunched up inside a green globe. He pulled away the petals to find the reproductive parts of the flower. In genuine interest, I noted how similar the top of the stigma looked to the top of the seedpods. We searched for a few more of these green closed-flowers-but-not-yet-seedpod parts and compared them. Ben’s mom was calling us to dinner, but he was deep into exploration.

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Notice the shape of the stigma.

We initially thought maybe the small white-yellow parts (anthers) were the seeds before they dried, but we quickly realized that our explanation didn’t make sense because how would the seeds get on the inside of the pod. I conjectured that maybe the white string-like part (filament) that the anthers were attached to had something to do with forming the seed. Ben looked for more closed flowers to investigate. He found three more, which we then lined up next to each other. Ben suggested that the center green part (stigma) gets bigger and bigger until it dries out. Buy why didn’t all the pods have seeds? He thought they simply weren’t “old enough” to have seeds yet.

Our plant pondering continued to observing the leaves of basil and mint, as well as comparing the flowers and seeds of garlic chives with small white agapanthus. He seemed to be gathering evidence to confirm his explanation of the poppy seed head. As the adults sat down to eat, I told Ben that sometimes scientists have to take a break and come back to their findings before they can make perfect sense of it. He asked, “What do they do on the break?” I said, “Maybe eat a little bit?” And so we did.

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