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Planting seeds of learning

1st-graders create miniature gardens at Queens museum
New York Teacher

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A student adds a polka dot plant to her minature garden.
Jonathan Fickies

A student adds a polka dot plant to her minature garden.

The 1st-graders from PS 166 in Astoria played in the dirt, squished the loamy soil through their fingers and grabbed handfuls of gravel as they set about creating individual terrariums.

The fun was all part of a class trip the students made in June to the Voelker Orth Museum, a bird sanctuary and Victorian home and garden in Flushing.

Museum educator Deena Bak prepared for building the terrariums with a lively question-and-answer session about weather, plants and the environments that different plants need to grow and thrive. The session included a lively callout in response to the question, “What rhymes with terrarium?” “Planetarium and aquarium” echoed back.

By the end, Bak had brought the 1st-graders to an appreciation of the part that water plays in the cycle of life and the power of condensation in a closed environment.

Teacher Nancy Ioannou said the workshop underscored concepts and lessons she has been working on with her students. She said she liked the museum’s hands-on activity and the fact that the children had something they could take home and share with their parents.

PS 166, a dual-language, pre-K–5 school with a gifted-and-talented program, has a large number of English language learners from homes where Spanish, Bengali or Arabic is spoken.

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Gently, gently, teacher Nancy Ioannou advises her gardeners.
Jonathan Fickies

"Gently, gently," teacher Nancy Ioannou advises her gardeners.

Elva Castro, one of three parents helping out that day, explained that the trip was made possible through a PTA grant, “something the parents provide for each grade that ties in to what students are learning.”

And so the stage was set.

Tiny hands plunged first into great bowls of gravel, to provide drainage for their terrariums, and then into bowls of soil as the young scientists put all the ideas they had just been talking about into play.

“A little messy, but science can be that way sometimes,” Bak observed.

Suddenly, a surprised shriek brought everything to a standstill. A garden snail was discovered in someone’s soil layer. Everyone rushed to see, then hurried back to comb through the earth for such a treasure of his or her own. When the snail was dispatched back into the garden and order restored, Bak distributed a small sprengeri fern and a polka dot plant to each gardener. She cautioned the children to “pat the soil gently so no roots show and add decorative moss and bark thoughtfully so water will be able to penetrate to the soil.”

Sharp double clicks filled the room as lids snapped shut on each plastic terrarium. Bak asked for “your biggest listening ears” as she described how to care for the miniature gardens, including where to put them and how to give “haircuts” if the plants grow too tall.

As the 90-minute visit ended, the 23 1st-graders looked at their handiwork in awe, eager to take their terrariums out into the world for everyone to admire.

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First-graders dig into the loam as they begin construction of their terrariums.
Jonathan Fickies
First-graders dig into the loam as they begin construction of their terrariums.
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A student displays his completed terrarium.
Jonathan Fickies
A student displays his completed terrarium.

Every 1st-grader at PS 166 visited the Voelker Orth Museum last year, one class at a time. Ioannou said the 1st-grade teachers agreed the field trip was worthwhile and plan to return this school year. The museum provides pre-K–6 educational programs for $95 per class (material fee included) for workshops from Tuesday through Friday, 10 to 11:30 a.m. In addition to terrarium gardening, schools can choose among the following nature themes: birds, from caterpillar to butterfly, honey bees and plants we eat. The museum also offers a history program, “A New Home in a New Country,” an exploration of the restored rooms in the 1890s house that reflect family life in that era. For more information visit the Voelker Orth Museum.

Related Topics: Field Trips