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Garden Q&A Take your home-schoolers outdoors for lessons

The Florida Times-Union logo The Florida Times-Union 8/15/2020 Candace Barone, For the Times-Union
a young boy standing next to a tree: Resources are available for parents to bring the environment into their home classrooms, and their students into the environment. [Candace Barone/UF/IFAS] © Candace Barone/UF/IFAS Resources are available for parents to bring the environment into their home classrooms, and their students into the environment. [Candace Barone/UF/IFAS]

How can our kids distance learn from home and in the garden?

I don't know about you but the memories of my early childhood centered around the great outdoors. I rushed out the front door mid-morning knowing the day was mine to explore and discover until dinnertime. Playing sports and games with friends were only part of the fun. In hindsight, I now realize that the sense of mystery to learn and create "inventions" was nurtured by the wide-open spaces outside.

Sadly, the freedom to explore unsupervised from our parents is a thing of the past. But the door remains open to learning about plants, weather and nature. There is much that our landscapes, gardens, parks and water life offer to classroom learning. Families are making personal decisions on what their children’s academic year will look like this month. Schooling at home has created new challenges for many but there are fantastic resources available if you just know where to look.   

Planned school activities centered around nature can enhance your child's knowledge of many subjects, especially for the youngest learners. Seed germination in re-purposed containers around the house was probably my first introduction to science. Collecting rocks, flowers and leaves followed nex,t surrounded by the creatures and abnormalities that lived on bark, leaves and flowers.   

Beyond the formative years in education, the opportunities to learn and grow from nature have grown exponentially. Plant/tree identification is of interest to adults just as it is to younger people. A dichotomous key is the tried and true method of identifying plants and trees.They are often listed as an appendix in the back of gardening books. Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, 4H clubs and summer camp programs have used them for years The University of Florida Extension division offers a free online key called Floragator. The website ( asks the participant multiple questions about the unknown plant to help narrow down then identify. If you want to learn more about identifying plants or trees, visit for plant photos, videos and details.

If instant identification is more your speed, there are a number of free phone apps that can help you outside. Snap a closeup picture of the plant and let the app system search for the top possibilities to put a name to it. PlantNet, PlantSnap, Google Lens, iNaturalist, Picture This and Flora Incognita are a few, but read the fine print first. Some of these sources have limited inventory storage or an abundance of advertising pop ups.

As we learn new things, it opens our eyes to ask more developed questions. Science progression leads us into pollination, food chains, life cycles and ecological adaptions. The evolution of a tadpole to a frog, the mechanics of a hard-working ant farm or the metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly are hands-on learning tools. Math skills centered around density, volume and measurement are encountered in nearly every garden. For example, arithmetic in planning a garden bed, fractions used in potting sizes and shapes/angles involve rudimentary geometry. Connecting math skills to something real and practical resonates for some young learners over the standard memorization protocol.

Daily writing in a nature journal is an easy writing/grammar routine your student could incorporate as routine. Studies in the field of civics, geography and sociology such as water/air pollution, climate, zoning, blight, recycling/waste and biodiversity can transition into charitable action for older students. Appreciating the journey and adversity of endangered plants and species can evoke compassionate community projects.

The internet is loaded with ideas to learn about the amazing things that live and grow outside. Even though our county extension programs and some services have been suspended during the pandemic, we all desire the return of resources. For our public schools, the Farm to School program partners with local farms to teach students about the origins of food, nutrition and environmental stewardship. The Duval County Junior Master gardener program is an excellent extension of utilizing your child's gardening skills in a class setting.  

Take a virtual field trip at and watch a recording of "Industry Nurturing Nature:The Bond Between Manatees and Power Plants." Conservancy of Southwest Florida offers online programs at The Virginia extension office is another great resource, at

The imagination and wonder of green life is available to all of us. We are adapting and redefining the methods and manner in which our children are being taught. Isn't it nice to know that during this age of adjusting, learning from plants and nature continues uninterrupted?  Gardens are truly living laboratories for kids of all ages to observe, learn and be inspired.

Candace Barone is a Master Gardener Volunteer with the Duval County Extension Service and the University of Florida/IFAS. For gardening questions, call the Duval County Extension Office at (904) 255-7450 from 9 a.m. to noon and 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. and ask for a Master Gardener Volunteer.

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Garden Q&A Take your home-schoolers outdoors for lessons


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