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March 13, 2013 Wild Plants Mean Even Wilder Learning! Part 1 By Shari Edwards
Grades 1–2, 3–5

    It’s almost that time again! The snow is melting and bits of green are appearing outside our classroom windows. Most of my plant unit is taught with plants from our school grounds. They have leaves, stems, roots, and flowers, plus they are plentiful and free. To start, we learn how to identify these plants. Before long, students want to know everything about them. That makes for some exciting lessons and an engaged class. These lessons take place in late March and April, but before it can begin, the plants must make their appearance.spring snow

    Is It Spring Yet?

    Some of my students and I took a walk last week and discovered that winter is losing its hold on the school's courtyard, and spring is peeking through. As we explored the corners of the yard, we counted seven of the plants that I will be using in my plant unit. I like to take students with me on these walks because the excitement builds as they begin to realize that those plants that they walk by every day are not all alike. Within a few days, they begin to identify many of them on their own.

    My Basic Unit Outline

    1. Initial plant walk — I point out a few plants that I recognize. My students are always surprised and intrigued that I can tell them apart.

    girl holding plants2. Introduce unit — I give students an overview of the unit and talk about the culminating activity. I ask my class for help listing any plants that I showed them on our walk on chart paper.

    3. Teach a "Dangerous Plants" lesson — I teach this based on our location. My lesson includes plants like Poison Ivy, Stinging Nettle, and Buffalo Burr, for the pain and itching they cause. I don't allow students to put any plants in their mouths.

    4. Close-up study — We bring one or two plants inside for study. I put them under the document camera on a small dry erase board. We look at their pictures in books or on the Internet and compare their properties. We look at the parts of the plants, identifying the leaves, stems, roots, flowers, and seed pods. I can use dry erase markers to label parts. Then we read about the plants and find some interesting facts about them.

    5. Sketch plants — Students draw likenesses of plants in science notebooks. (They love doing this!) I have them label the parts.plant lists (Repeat #4 and #5 as often as you wish.)

    6. Fieldwork — We spend time as a class walking around the schoolyard and identifying plants and their locations.

    7. Map the schoolyard —- Students then create a map of a portion of the school grounds. I review map skills and model as necessary while they draw. I also help them create a map key.

    8. Take maps outside — We find plants on the grounds and mark their locations. (This may take more than one session.)

    9. Self-evaluation / group-evaluation of maps We do map work if needed.

    10. Conduct plant tours — I like to invite another class to go on a plant tour. Each student uses their map to show a guest the plants in the schoolyard and tell them their names and interesting facts learned during our study.

    Lesson Number One — Safety!

    Because my plant unit includes quite a bit of "fieldwork," it is very important to teach students how to exploreClass bear looking at poison ivy safely. Once we begin identifying plants, students spend a lot of time looking around at school and at home.  Lesson number one is plant safety!

    I begin the safety lesson by showing them what poison ivy looks like. Many will have stories to tell about their experiences with the plant. I tell them the sad story about a former student who had a horrible run-in with it at school and what to do if they believe they’ve spotted some. (Don't touch. Tell me!)

    We look at pictures of poison ivy from the local nature center's website and, of course, pictures of what Journey (our class bear) found last summer. We talk about the shapes and numbers of the leaves and the fact that poison ivy can grow like a vine on trees, as a bush on the ground, or as small, single-stem plants. I have them sketch the shape with me in their science notebooks.

    Here is my list of fieldwork cautions:

    • Look before you touch.
    • Get me if you think you've spotted poison ivy.
    • Never put plants in your mouth. (You don't know if it's safe to eat or if it has been sprayed with herbicide.)
    • Walk away from plants that have bees around them.
    • Tell the teacher if you know you have plant allergies.

    girls identify henbit

    Know Your Plants!

    Plant identification is fun and important. Before you can introduce your students to the schoolyard plants, you must identify them for yourself. There are so many good resources to help you, and you DON'T have to know all of them. Pick out five to ten plants that you can start with. I started with dandelions! My students find new plants for me all the time that I have to look up. Sometimes I have to just say, "I don't know that one." My students love being able to identify the plants around them.

    Why I believe plant identification is a worthwhile activity:

    Visual perception and discrimination is extremely important to beginning readers. Identifying plants by discriminating color (have you ever noticed how many different shades of green there are?), shape of leaves, petals, flowers, seed pods, and stems, and the size of the leaves is great practice truly seeing differences. I believe this activity provides students with an enjoyable way to work their visual muscles. They become very observant.

    plants in our courtyardDo You Know Any of the Plants on Our List?

    If you do, then start with some of these. If not, find a good book about wild plants from your area. I have my favorite books for this, but they are specifically written for Kansas. An Internet search for books identifying wild plants or weeds of your particular state should help you find the best books for your area.

    There are also many online resources, including:

     USDA Plant Database

    Smithsonian Botany Department


    Next week, I will share some of the activities that I use to help my students explore plants, their parts, and their needs.

    How do you teach your students about plants?

    Have you ever used wild plants?



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Susan Cheyney