These works take the overarching concepts of the garden and break them into smaller components – comprehensible for the 3-6 year old child. They also offer meaningful work to the child that will allow them to observe and tend to the garden. These lessons lay the groundwork for bigger practical works in the future.
Tools and materials for the works are set out in outdoor cubbies. Once a child has learned all of the works there is opportunity for free choice. First, however, it is important to teach students how to do each work properly and how to clean up a work to get it ready for the next person wishing to use it. We do this in small groups of 6-10 children, taking approximately 15 minutes to teach a work from start to finish, and then we give them a chance to practice.
Trowel control/ digging down: Various size pots are buried in the soil. The student’s task is to use a trowel to empty all of soil from the pots, effectively learning to dig downwardly and to dig a hole progressively deeper. This is surprisingly challenging for small children and helps them build fine motor skills. Once they have mastered this skill they can move on to digging holes to plant garlic, onions, holes for transplants, etc. While digging, students get a chance to notice things going on in the soil. Is it wet? Is it dry? Are there worms, pill bugs, centipedes, ants? They can also taste the perennial herbs growing in the spiral next to their work.
Trowel control/ digging a furrow: Two strips of wood, or another suitable material, are placed parallel to one another, buried, so that their tops are at ground level. The student’s task is to use a trowel to dig a straight furrow between the ski’s of wood. This skill will be helpful for planting rows of seeds in garden beds later. Again, learning the fine motor skill of digging horizontally is challenging work and they take to it with alacrity.
Seed sorting: A small container contains holds varieties of seeds (make sure that they are large enough that they won’t get lost or dropped.) Students work at sorting seeds by size, color, and shape, placing similar seeds in compartmentalized trays. In this work they are able to practice fine motor skills, observation skills, counting skills, and learn to name seeds by sight. A 4 year old who can tell the difference between an okra seed, a pumpkin seed, and a pea seed is pretty impressive and this familiarity with seeds will help them distinguish subtle differences as they mature.
Seed depth: Students must match seed sizes to different depths. This work uses the empty frame of the cylinder blocks, a Montessori sensory work. This work is for the more advanced primary student who can work through a multistage process. Through this work they learn that seeds need to be planted at a specific depth in order to grow. If tiny seeds (like carrots or lettuce) get buried too deep, they’ll never grow! Likewise, if a large seed (like garlic) isn’t buried deep enough, it wont grow.
Seed Spacing: We are still experimenting with the best measuring tool for this work and there are a variety of options. We began with an uncoiled rope marked with tape every 1 inch, 3 inches, or 12 inches. The rope proved difficult because it didn’t want to lie flat. Now we use an old-timey folding measuring stick. This works well, but is challenging for the students to unfold. This work is done on the sidewalk. Students have a small set of seeds (we use either fava beans, corn, or bush beans) and a corresponding yard stick. Their work is to space the seeds evenly, matching the seed to the colorful strip of tape. They see that corn, although a small seed, needs lots of space to grow! Bush beans are spaced pretty close together, and fava’s are somewhere in the middle. We take it a step further with students who are ready and show them the concept of thinning. They plant “too many” seeds, and seeds too close together, and then “thin” by taking seeds away. It’s great to have a bed of germinated or mature plants nearby to show them what this looks like.
Carefully pouring: Students will practice emptying their watering cans into small containers. The goal is not to spill any water and pour directly into the appropriate cup or beaker, not overfilling it. This work consists of a plastic tray, plastic beakers in gradating sizes, a watering can, and a metal tub where they dunk their cans to fill them. It is the precursor to being ready to water real roots in the garden. It teaches many important concepts and skills. One, that plants don’t need to be drowned so we have to water carefully and just enough. Two, that our aim has to be good and we have to water the roots of the plants, not the leaves. Three, that water is precious and we don’t want to waste it.
Distinguishing between roots and leaves: Now students are ready to practice watering the roots of a plant. We originally set up blue rocks around fruit bushes in the garden that we knew didn’t mind wet feet. Once students showed us that they were capable of carefully finding and watering the roots of a plant, we set them free to water these bushes to their delight. They did so well that now we rarely use the stones, and instead ask them to water the broccoli, tomatoes, potatoes, or whatever is thirsty!
There are no set parameters for these works and they vary from season to season. They allow for exploration and discovery and lots of tasting.
They include harvesting work, planting work, tasting work, cooking work, composting work, and wheelbarrow work.
Some suggestions for composting & maintenance work:
Shredding: Students shred soaked newspaper lengthwise for the compost.
Sorting living vs. non-living items: In this work students must sort once living or organic materials into a pile FOR the compost. Other, non-living or non-organic materials get sorted in another pile, for the recycling or the trash.
Cutting: Students practice cutting or ripping stems and leaves into small pieces and placing them into the compost so that they can decompose faster (we do this with sweet potato leaves and stems, bean leaves, basil, and many others. Just make sure the plant isn’t diseased if adding it to the compost. We chop little stems no longer than 6 inches.
Watering the Compost: Students help maintain the balance of moisture in the compost by watering it until it becomes spongy.
Grinding: Students grind cottonseed for application to the gardens as an amendment.
Pushing Wheelbarrows: Students practice their wheelbarrow skills by pushing loads of mulch to beds or spent plants to the compost. We use child sized radio flyer wagons.
Collecting Fallen Fruit: Students help to stop the spread of disease by collecting fallen fruit in baskets and discarding it in the woods (wearing gloves to protect from bee’s.)
Sweeping: Students sweep or rake pathways to keep them tidy and free of debris.