Monthly Archives: August 2014

One Way to Share Your Enthusiasm for Plants with Kids

Imagine you are outside. The sun is shining, illuminating the new growth on the western red cedars. It’s been a great growing season and the plants at Washington Park Arboretum are thriving. The backdrop of evergreen trees is a lovely frame to all of the native and non-native plants in the collection. Now, if those kids would just get here!

Just when you thought you couldn’t wait any longer, here comes the bus holding a bunch of school-aged children just bursting with energy and excitement to be out of school and outside on such a fine day as this. Today, you will be teaching 15 of them the Native Plants and Native People program. What is native? What is invasive? Who was born in this state? Who are the Puget Sound Salish People? The kids get engaged by the questions you ask. You are showing them their participation and input is wanted and valuable.

kids running

Photo by Lisa Sanphillippo

You will focus some of their amazing energy into a running game about what people need to survive. After they have run out some of their shenanigans, you might point out that most everything folks need to survive comes from plants. And with the Puget Sound Salish People, they didn’t just use any old plants; they used plants that are native—original to this place.

It will surprise you how many of them know what a western red cedar looks like. The J-shaped branches and the flat leaves are very familiar to most of them. But, you can still teach them about western hemlock and its different length needles and puzzle-piece bark.

Douglas fir might be new to them, too. Though, once the children see the deep and creviced bark and the way-up high branches, it will be hard for them to forget. Maybe you will tell them the story of the mouse looking for a safe home in a forest fire and use the cones of each to differentiate and describe the three trees. You know that story will create a great memory for them about how to identify all three trees.

kids in circle

Photo by Jacob Smithers

You will show them artifacts made by local ethnobotanist, Heidi Bohan. They will get a chance to touch and hold a cedar weaving, a fishing spear, or a canoe bailer. Each model was made to demonstrate how plants can be used to create a beautiful and useful object that could help a person survive and thrive. When you ask the kids what they use in their everyday lives that is made from plants, you are impressed that the list they give you is so long.

kids making fire

Photo by Jacob Smithers

When you take them to salal and Oregon grape and tell them about how berries from each were mixed together along with huckleberry to make a delicious berry cake sort of like a fruit roll up, you can see that they are almost ready for lunch! To distract them, you get them going on the hands-on activities.

This is your favorite part, because they have to work together as a team—just as Puget Sound Salish people of the past and present— to understand how to use a fire bow and drill or to build a single wall of a plank house or to learn how to cook food below the ground. It’s a great distraction because they’ve forgotten about their hunger for a moment as they dig in to the task at hand.

It’s nearly the end of the program, now. You gather them together and ask each person to tell you something they learned or liked from the field trip. It is thrilling how many of them remember that the western hemlock makes sunscreen, how Douglas fir has mouse butts in the cones, or that homes can be made without nails.

Photo by Jacob Smithers

Photo by Jacob Smithers

You thank them and walk them back to their bus, which will take them back to school. You hope they will remember today as a fun day. You hope it will help them with their classroom work. And you hope they will continue to love being outside, to learn about plants, and and to take that love and learning into their adult lives.

You head back to the work room to talk with your fellow volunteer guides about the kids and their chaperones, and to put away the activities and props from the program. You are tired—sheesh, kids take it out of you—but you feel good—proud to be a part of a program that helps kids connect with plants and the natural world.

This is the kind of day we get to have at University of Washington Botanic Gardens Washington Park Arboretum. Is it the kind of day you might like?

Our Volunteer Garden Guides bring their knowledge and skills to teach about native plants, forests, pollination, photosynthesis, wetland plants and animals, ecosystems and habitat. We provide training, curricula and enrichments so each person is confident and comfortable teaching.

Consider donating your valuable time and expertise to connecting kids to nature through field trips. We welcome you to be a part of our incredible team of staff and volunteers. We can tell you will fit right in.

UW Botanic Gardens Volunteer Garden Guide Training begins September 5th with a kayak tour of the Washington Park Arboretum and continues the following week.

For more information about becoming a volunteer and training, please contact Lisa Sanphillippo, School Programs Coordinator, at 206-543-8801 or