Copyright 2011 -2015
by Sara L. Ambarian
Science study can be one of the most fascinating aspects of our children’s schooling, due to the incredible diversity of scientific subjects and the wide variety of hands-on activities which can be related to each. Late spring and summer is a great time to take your scientific endeavors outdoors and take advantage of the vast laboratory of nature. An especially interesting and broad branch of science for summer study in the outdoors is botany.
What is botany?
Botany, according to Webster’s Dictionary is “the branch of biology that studies plants, their life, structure, growth, classification, etc.” Delving deeper into specifics, the Botanical Society of America http://botany.org/bsa/careers/what_is_botany.php tells us that “plants” have been generally thought to include “a wide range of living organisms from the smallest bacteria to the largest living things ‑ the giant sequoia trees. By this definition plants include: algae, fungi, lichens, mosses, ferns, conifers and flowering plants.” However, the Society states that modern scientists theorize that bacteria, algae and fungi are not part of the plant kingdom, though they continue to be studied/taught about within botany classes. For basic botany education, you probably won’t have the resources (or your students the interest) to worry too much about these tiny organisms, one way or another.
What do botanists do?
Like other biology careers, botany is a general discipline that covers many more specific studies and specialties. Someone educated as a botanist might study plant anatomy, plant reproductive biology, ecosystem ecology, paleobotany, plant care/cultivation, botanical education, or any of a wide variety of other specialized fields. They may work indoors or outdoors, in a wide variety of work environments– in a laboratory, in a greenhouse, at a botanic garden, at a museum, for a government agency, for a private company, etc.
For more on what botanists do, where they work, who they work for, etc., see:
(This page also has links to information on some other interesting outdoor careers, as well.)
For an interesting table showing different specialties in the botanical field, see The Botanical Society of America, at:
Also visit The Botanical Society of America’s career page, which has interesting stories from actual professional botanists:
Why teach or study botany?
There are many reasons to teach or study botany. Every child has plant materials of some sort available for study, even if it’s only sidewalk weeds, houseplants, or cut flowers and/or vegetables from the grocery store. Plants are intricate organisms which can provide many fascinating study opportunities; but unlike animals, they stay right where you left them. Because of this, plants are easier for young children to examine and identify. Also, you can theoretically observe them over an extended period of time.
Changes in growing plants are generally fairly obvious and easy for even small children to observe and compare. For example, growth from a seedling and other changes in size, development of flower and/or leaf buds, blossom drop and fruit development, and seasonal foliage color changes are all obvious processes anyone paying attention can follow. Older children can delve deeper into botany through more complex subjects like habitat and plant reproduction.
Studying plants also often brings up interesting lessons in the behavior of insects, birds and mammals, since we’re all interdependent on one another.
Don’t feel overwhelmed about trying to teach botany even if you do not know much about the subject yourself. It is a big and complex study, and you are not going to send your students out ready for university research projects. All you should really be aiming for at the start is to get the kids interested by presenting one or two small botanical lessons… and it does not take much preparation to be able to do that.
Below are some simple ideas for botanical explorations. Each of these is a manageable lesson, both for you to teach and for your students to learn. They each also touch on one aspect of botanical study which could inspire your students to pursue additional information and other lessons, of your or their own design.
Learn some basics, print some diagrams, and view some photos.
Plant anatomy and terminology are both easy ways to introduce botanical ideas to students. The following links, and many other resources, can get you started.
Dictionary of botanical terms plus an encyclopedia of plants and flowers:
Parts of plants, with fun activities at some of the links:
Find information about local wildflower varieties online at a site like this:
Beautiful botanical macro photography:
Borrow a book.
Head to your local library and see what it has to offer. You will probably find some simple books for young readers, some flower or tree identification field guides for your area, as well as books on more specialized botanical subjects. Let the selection give you inspiration. Later, if your student(s) enjoy their initial botanical studies, you may want to invest in a couple of (new or used) botany-oriented books.
Learn the local dangers.
Every environment has its hazards, whether it is your own home or classroom or a vast natural wilderness. It is just common sense.
For example, in many areas, gardeners know that sheltered areas behind plants often harbor black widow spiders; so it is wise to keep your eyes open as you explore. Depending on your region, you might have a number of other insect dangers (or at least annoyances) to plan for as well. Mosquitos, ticks, deer flies and other biting bugs are often out enjoying the summer weather at the same time you are, so take appropriate precautions with protective clothing, repellents, etc.
In California, a spring botanical phenomenon that brings many visitors out of the city, the blooming of the California poppies, is often accompanied by the spring “wake-up” of local rattlesnakes. Especially dangerous is the Mojave green rattlesnake, which is an odd gray-green color which sometimes blends into the gray- or blue-green foliage of the poppies. Every year, folks plunge out into the vast fields of orange blooms, as if it is the poppy field in Oz, with no thought to what might be hidden beneath. Unfortunately, sometimes people or dogs are bitten by rattlers, when sticking to the trails and/or watching where they put their feet could let them enjoy the gorgeous display in safety.
In some areas, you will want to be alert for bears if you go berry picking (an interesting and literally rewarding type of botanical study).
Even dangers from other plants can potentially put a damper on your botanizing adventures. Be sure that you and the children are all familiar with poison oak (western US)/poison ivy, stinging nettle, poison sumac, and any other local plant irritant.
Also, if you plan to pick any wild edibles, like berries, be ABSOLUTELY sure that you know what you will be gathering, that it is safe to eat, what other local plants might look similar, and that you are legally allowed to gather it in the location where you plan to do so. Children must be seriously admonished not to pick or eat ANY other plant material they find, and young children must be very closely monitored, so keep your adult-to-child ratio as close as possible for the safest outing.
Don’t let potential dangers deter you from exploring. Just do some research so you and the students know what to expect and where to use caution.
Get up close and personal.
At botanic gardens, preserves and national parks, nature study is strictly “hands-off”… take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints”… a good policy due to the volume of visitors. However, in a schoolyard setting, home garden, or on national forest/Bureau of Land Management area, judicious hands-on opportunities can be had. Many children will respond more readily to the study if they can actually handle, dismantle and analyze a flower or leaf or two up close; so this is a great option when it is available.
Flowers, leaves , bark (and/or parts thereof) look even more interesting when seen under magnification. Many botanical details are big enough to see well with limited enlargement. So, take a magnifying glass with you; or if allowable, bring home one or two small specimens to analyze in greater detail under a home microscope. Check these links out, too.
Instructions for viewing dyed onion skin cells under the microscope (a very cool experiment!):
An interesting sequence of photos of bamboo examined under a microscope:
Some really wild autofluorescent plant cell photography you have to see to believe:
If you can’t go out, find specimens at the grocery store or nursery, or in the kitchen.
You can also study domesticated flowers you could buy cheap in bouquets at the grocery store or in pots from a home improvement store or nursery. No one will care if you tear these apart to analyze their anatomy, and a mixed-variety supermarket bouquet will provide plenty of specimens for several students to study several different types of flower.
You can also do botanical analyses on your vegetables before you eat them. What part of the plant do you eat? Can you see the rest of it (i.e., carrot tops, pea pods, green onion roots)? Do you know where/how the plant grows? You can make many interesting botanical observations and discoveries about if you look at skins, leaf veins, seeds, husks, etc. Then you can eat what is left of your experimentation.
Growing edible sprouts is another great way to do kitchen botany. For more information, check out the Sprout School pages at SproutPeople.org:
Artistic/creative kids may enjoy flower/leaf pressing, or might learn more if they draw, paint or photograph botanical specimens.
Although you can purchase (or build) a fancy press, flower or leaf pressing can be done by placing specimens between waxed or parchment paper within the pages of a large book with other books or heavy items stacked on top. (The paper will keep your pages clean from pollen or moisture.) Leaves are usually easy to just lay flat. Flowers often look nicer with some attention paid to how you spread petals, bend stems, etc., to try to get the finished flattened flower to reflect the fresh appearance of the specimen. Experiment with more than one specimen, if practical, to see what looks the most attractive. The length of time it takes for the specimens to flatten and dry will vary based on the thickness and moisture content of the specimen, the amount of weight used, and the humidity level of your surroundings. Fully-dried pressed leaves and flowers can be kept as keepsakes or used in art projects. If they are exposed to a lot of sunlight (and as they age, generally), they may lose a lot of their original color. However, kept dry in the dark, they stay beautiful an amazingly long time.
Very young artists can observe and reproduce a flower, leaf or vegetable with the most basic elements of color and shape. Pink, red, white, yellow, purple, or orange flowers may have nearly watercolor gradations of hue and shade; but for the littlest children, just picking a corresponding color crayon, pencil or marker is a lesson. In analyzing shape, help them focus on the overall outline and basic composition. An open rose is a wavy spherical shape. A violet or viola has five petals little ones can count. Most carrots are basically a long triangle (though French and baby varieties are sometimes more oblong and rounded).
Older or more experienced student artists can explore shading, striping, spots, proportion, individual plant/flower parts, and even details as intricate as leaf veining or hairy stems. You may be surprised at the details different children will notice and choose to reproduce. We often each see something slightly different even when we view the same item. That is one of the exciting things about doing nature study with a buddy or in a group. Their choices of media will also affect the level of nuance and detail that is possible. Black-and-white pencil or ink drawings are great for fine details. Colored pencils (especially the kind that smears with water) are an easy and neat way to mix colors to show subtle gradations, even if sketching out in the field. Watercolors can give even more fluid color transitions and sometimes even capture the effect of the moisture and luminescence of some plant materials.
Plant photography can also run the gamut from a simple “wide” shot of a field of grass or flowers, to a cameo of a single pretty blossom, to a very “tight”(“macro”) photo of a vegetable’s seeds, the texture of a piece of bark, or the sticky pistil and pollen-covered stamen in the center of a flower. Again, each child will see something different, and both age and technical experience can often play a part in both their approach and their results; but it’s all another way of viewing, experiencing, and remembering what they’ve seen. Make sure that they know how to operate the camera, turn them loose, and see what they see.
Planting seeds, in more ways than one.
Perhaps one of the most obvious ways to get children interested in botany is through gardening. Whether you plant a windowsill herb garden in pots, a sidewalk strip of annual flowers, or a dozen varieties of vegetables, helping with a garden gives children a wide variety of botanical experiences. They experience seed sprouting. They can learn about the nutrients and environmental factors plants need to grow. They can examine their plants in great detail. They can see the formation of fruit/seeds. They will probably also see pests and diseases that affect plants. If the plants flourish, they have a crop of herbs, flowers, fruit or vegetables to enjoy. If they don’t, trying to figure out why can provide interesting lessons as well. Do try to include some easy-to-grow varieties, to increase the chances of success; but emphasize the process (rather than the results) all along the way, so you do not miss out on the unexpected “teachable moments”.
However you choose to introduce and/or pursue botany with children, you are helping them better understand the world around them. You may also be planting the seeds of curiosity, opening up new avenues of inquiry and interest. It is always interesting how often learning one piece of information will spur you to think, ask or study about related subjects. So you never really know where the simple introductory lesson you teach might lead your students. The good news is that there is a whole summer ahead to find out!
You can also access this activity in
I will leave you with one more activity suggestion (the easiest one yet!) Play this fun flower match memory game!
Please see http://www.condortales.com/bridestouch.html to learn more about the author.
Read the other parts of this creative hands-on lesson planning newsletter by visiting