How kids and a garden deepened my sense of place

I volunteer as a “garden guide” at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. I chose this volunteer gig to help me re-learn NC’s native plants after being away for so many decades and to plug into a community of people who share a love of nature and being outdoors. I love this garden because it focuses on conservation and native plants.

Last spring, after my initial training as a garden guide, I jumped right in and led a few school school field trips, sharing my fledgling knowledge of the garden’s plants and habitats in a structured way. It was fun, but I felt a bit like a fish out of water because everything was still so new to me – the plants, the layout of the garden, the style of field trip.

Columbine blooming at the NCBG on March 25, 2019 (photo by Deb Hanson)

Now, a year later, after living through a full cycle of North Carolina seasons, taking some more plant ID classes, and wandering the garden habitats often, I am much more comfortable with what’s here and there, when things leaf out, bloom, or seed, and how native animals interact with the plants and other elements of their habitats. This week, my Garden boss Mike Dunn, gave me the opportunity to lead two brand new school field trips – trips that are less structured than usual and offer the opportunity to capitalize more on what is happening in real time, right now with the plants and animals at the Garden.

In preparing for these trips, I spent extra time making up clues and riddles that would help the kids identify various plants. I scouted several different routes through the garden that would take advantage of specific trees, blooming flowers, salamander egg masses, and the always-popular carnivorous plant beds. I researched more hidden uses of plants, and I identified specific trees, shrubs, and critters that I wanted to share with the kids. I was excited to be leading trips that were more open-ended and able to take advantage of spontaneous opportunities in the gardens.

Carnivorous plants at the NC Botanical Garden

The three trips I led this week were by far the best field trips I’ve experienced as a garden guide. The kids were engaged and excited, partly I think, because I was more excited about my role as a leader. Some of the best moments included:

  • seeing the kids’ fascination at watching a honeybee pollinate flowers. It was right at eye-level for them, and they could see its every move, commented on its pollen sacs, noticed its fuzzy body parts, and made a connection about how the plant and animal help each other
  • having a little boy listen to my story about how spotted salamanders eggs are lain, mature, and hatch and then him formulating several questions that started with, “I have two things… no three things…how do the young salamanders know how to return to the pool where they were hatched?…” Such great wondering/thinking!
  • listening to their reasons for why we have an 8-foot tall fence around the main part of the gardens… (to keep mean people out, was one answer :-))
  • learning that for 2nd graders “decompose” means something entirely unrelated to the rotting of a log (see what they know it as here – yeah, I learned something from them, too!) But, now they know those worms and grubs we found under the rotting log are also decomposers!

I’ve known for years that one of the best ways to learn something is to teach it to others, because you cannot teach something that you don’t understand yourself. So, prepping for these garden walks gave me an opportunity to learn more about the plants and animals of NC and deepen my understanding of this place where I live. But something even more profound happened here this week…

After leading these three field trips, I feel a much deeper sense of place here in North Carolina. I feel more connected to the habitats, to the NC Botanical Garden, to the kids of the Piedmont who came to learn and share their energy and enthusiasm for the outdoors, and to this place I call home once again. This was a mind- and heart-shifting week for me.

Being able to teach, to show, to share my love for and excitement about the plants, animals, and natural communities here in NC is helping me form a new bond with this place, with my home – and that is a gift worth holding on to.

(Thanks, Mike!)

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