Growing gardeners, by Dorry Norris

April 03, 2005|by Dorry Baird Norris

These days, gardening programs for kids are growing in popularity. Everyone, from The Herb Society of America to the National Gardening Association to local garden clubs, is creating strategies aimed at introducing children to the joys of nature through gardening.

This is old hat for Cooperative Extension. One of the traditional priorities of 4-H clubs has been to help youngsters understand and care for plants and animals.

Recent studies have shown that as these programs are implemented in schools test scores in math, science, English and social studies rise and discipline problems decrease.

Schools, community gardens and other public places are making space for kids to "do dirt." On top of this, public gardens - many of them commercial (like the ones at Hershey) are building special sections to pique the interest of young visitors in the natural world.


None of this emphasis would come as a surprise to Liberty Hyde Bailey, but the money expended might shock him. Born on a farm in Michigan in 1858, Bailey as a child learned his way around the fields surrounding the farm. He would spend his life passing on the joy he found in studying plants and insects in this world.

Bailey graduated from Michigan Agricultural College with a degree in botany and then spent two years working at Harvard with Asa Gray, the renowned botanist. After a stint at Michigan, he arrived at Cornell University in 1888; his assignment was to build a new program in practical and experimental horticulture. As part of this charge, he was able, with hard won state funding, to start a program to teach nature study in rural schools.

Bailey believed that children should grow up appreciating the world around them. When he assumed responsibility for the new program, he immediately appointed Anna Bostwick Comstock to run it. Earlier, Comstock had been the first woman, chosen by Bailey, for the faculty. Then and throughout his career, he was a supporter of equal academic opportunity for women.

Bailey and Comstock had a vision that every rural child in New York State should be afforded the opportunity to explore the natural things in the world around them. Together, they began publishing a monthly Home Nature Study Course for teachers. Bailey wrote the first leaflet: "How a Squash Plant Gets Out of the Seed."

John W. Spencer joined Bailey and Comstock to organize thousands of children into Junior Naturalist Clubs. The Junior Naturalist periodical began publication in 1899.

Anna Comstock soon took over preparing monthly bulletins for the home nature-study correspondence course. This material formed the basis of her most famous work, the 930-page "Handbook of Nature Study." One writer describes the handbook as "a love letter to nature." It was first published in 1911 and, after 25 editions, is still in print.

Today, teachers and schools are hard-pressed to fit all the mandated requirements into a limited school day. In 1903, Bailey was ahead of his time when he described this state of affairs in "The Nature Study Idea" this way:

"There seems to be little personal life-motive in our education. The process provides passive or static results. The solution ... to outgrow the sit-still and keep-still method of school work (is) to put children to work with tools and soils and plants."

That's where YOU come in. Never mind the elaborate children's gardens or the group garden programs. This is one-on-one time. Just imagine what it would be like if every school child across the country had access to some outdoor space and an adult to help them discover the delights that are hidden there. City park or rural lane - all contain natural things that are waiting to yield their secrets to the curious child and the willing adult.

Invest in a book that identifies plants and insects. Comstock's "Handbook of Nature Study," complemented by something else with colored pictures, would be a good place to start. Invite any small fry or middle fry of your acquaintance to go exploring with you. Marvel as you watch a butterfly extract nectar from the spiny center of an Echinacea bloom, touch a worm, catch a firefly, feel the dirt.

Both of you will improve your powers of observation, gain practical and useful information, cultivate your imaginations and enjoy each other.

This year, share spring.

Much of this information was gleaned from "Liberty Hyde Bailey: A Man for All Seasons" created by the Division of Rare & Manuscript Collections, Cornell University.

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