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Green Bites: Learning Empathy through Plant Monitoring with Kids

Kid observes a plant closely with a magnifying lensHere’s a quasi-radical statement: Kids need to learn empathy. They aren’t always born with the milk of kindness coursing through their little endocrine systems. Even so-called sensitive kids need emotional support and training to fully understand the impact of their behavior on others. One fun, green way to instill this level of mindfulness towards others is by plant monitoring.

Plant monitoring is the close observation and recording of the growth and health (and may I suggest also well-being) of a plant or group of plants. No doubt you’ve seen plant-monitoring experiments in preschool and elementary school classrooms.

If your child comes home with a paper cup with a bean sprout or a sunflower seedling, they’ve been doing some plant monitoring at school.  Typically, what that means is that your child has been observing a plant closely — often from seed, through germination and the first stages of growth. Depending on the age level and the assignment, your child may draw some pictures during the stages of germination or chart the plant’s growth.

Then the experiment is over, the paper cup comes home, and if you don’t pop the little green guy into place in your garden, the seedling generally languishes and dies. Good practical science experiment, but not the greatest lesson in mindfulness and empathy towards plants.

Plant monitoring at home can be much more rewarding for the child, the parent and the plant because we can bend the scientific rules a bit and have more fun with the plant. (For one thing you can can give it a name. Henri the Houseplant.) The expressed goal of plant monitoring at home should be to develop a relationship and awareness of your plant’s needs and desires.

Everyone admits freely that plants have needs, but desires? Yes, plants, like people, desire to thrive. They desire to move into the best patch of light or to grow to their optimal height — and like people they don’t necessarily need to accomplish their desires to survive, as any over-pruned azalea will tell you.

How to set up a family plant-monitoring experiment

1. Choose a plant, preferably one that already exists in your home or garden. A good way to start plant monitoring is with an existing plant that your child already has an awareness of, be it the peace lily in the corner of the dining room, the potted conifer left over from Christmas or the tomato starts purchased as a gift for daddy on Fathers Day.

Your child might not have any empathy for the existing plants in your home and garden to start with, and that’s okay, the point is that they existed before the plant monitoring experiment — not that they exist because of the plant monitoring experiment.

2. Decide with your child what the plant needs to be happy. Water. Sunlight. Decide with your child what would make the plant extra happy — maybe some fertilizer? Extra mulch?  Go to the library or plant nursery with your child if you need more information about what would make your monitoring specimen happy.

istock_boywateringbasil23. Make a plan for the care and feeding of your plant. The next step is to set up a child-friendly plan for plant care. Taking time to set up a good watering system and schedule is important. Find a watering can that kids can fill and carry easily. Make a plan with your child to do scheduled watering, fertilizing, etc. in advance.

4. Prepare to take good notes about your plant’s health and development. This is where it is fun to get a little science-y with the notebook for observations, charts, hand-drawn pictures or photographs. You may want to purchase a magnifying lens for close observation. Because this is a family experiment, feel free to break out the pastels or watercolors and practice some plant still-lifes in different mediums. (Henri at Sunset.) Scrapbook it up.

5. Observe the family plant. You don't have to make plant monitoring with the kids a big deal. Just make a point of checking in with the plant together and really noticing what's going on with it. Is its soil dry? Does it look droopy? Is it budding? Yellowing and dropping leaves? Developing fruit? Make it part of your morning ritual to ask how the plant is doing today? Ask your child to note their observations and their actions in the notebook you've designated for this purpose.

Over time your family will really get to know your plant and its growing preferences. Plant monitoring builds patience, observation skills and empathy. Don't be surprised if you find your family green thumb!

Resources for home plant-monitoring experiments

Need help setting up a watering schedule, here's a general watering guide for common houseplants.

Have a plant question? Try the UW Botanical Gardens Miller Library's Plant Answer Line.

To identify native plants in your garden try the Burke Museum's online Herbarium Image Collection.

Annie FanningAbout the author:
Annie Fanning is a mother of two brilliant daughters, a Seattle Tree Ambassador, and a flower-throwing anarchist. In addition to being a contributing writer, she is also on ParentMap's editorial staff.

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