When you consider indoor winter activities for your children, do you think of gardening? If not, read on. Connecting children with the garden has become a popular wintry pastime.
There are articles, games, toys and other activities that you can find for children in print, on video, on the Internet and in the real world. Here are some suggestions for getting your child started.
* Field of dreams: Create a miniature replica of a sports field on a cookie sheet. Place moist potting soil on the cookie sheet and level the soil. Turf will grow in as little as half an inch of soil. It just needs extra moisture as it matures. Sow about an ounce of grass seed for a field the size of a cookie sheet. The easiest grass to grow is rye. It germinates in three days, but must get six hours of light or more, either supplemental grow lights or a bright window. Mow the lawn as needed with grass clippers. Make players out of modeling clay; fashion goals out of pipe cleaners. Put down lines by laying two rulers flat with a narrow space in between, then sprinkling flour along the space.
* Containers of color: Get some winter-flowering houseplants at the garden center, such as cyclamens, gloxinias or African violets. Plant them in any receptacle that will hold potting soil--an old shoe, lunch box, toy truck, coffee cup or any other container. Drainage is preferred, or use gravel liberally at the bottom. Grow in bright indirect light. Be sure that you supervise what gets used as a container, or someone could lose a prized possession.
* Fun to dye for: Your child can paint flowers like Monet, but with food coloring and real flowers. Get some white carnations and turn them any hue you want overnight by putting food coloring in their water. When you immerse the flowers into the water, prune an inch or two off of the stems to make a fresh cut. Also try cut snapdragons, lilies and daisies. Teach your child that water flowing up through the plants' "veins" by capillary action transports the color up the stem to the petals.
* Fast fragrance: Paper-white narcissus are easy-flowering bulbs. Plant several in sand or stone and keep moist. Within five to six weeks you'll have fragrant flowers. Plant them every two weeks and they'll blossom continually into spring. The foliage likes light, but the blooms hold longer out of direct sun. Discard the plants into your compost pile when the flowers fade.
* Mold farm: The phenomenon that amazed me as a child was that fungi, or molds, as they're commonly called, could come seemingly from nowhere and grow on a piece of moist bread placed in a covered jar that was put into a warm dark place for a couple of days. Try it. Teach your child that these types of fungi are good for the environment. They help break down organic material, so it can become a nutrient for the soil. Explain that the colorful, cottony, velvety texture of these alien looking plants is actually many vegetative strands, which together are called "mycelium." It's similar to the way individual branches together form a shrub or tree. When the food source, in this case bread, is depleted, the mycelium dies.
* Potato head: Remember Mr. Potato Head? A variation would be to sprout the potato first. Stick three toothpicks vertically into the center of a potato. The toothpicks should be at equal intervals, so they stick out the side and will suspend the potato on the top of a glass to hold the top half out of the water and allow the bottom part to sit in water. In six to eight weeks, Mr. or Mrs. Potato Head will have sprouted green leafy "hair," and it will be time to decorate with markers, carrots, olives, raisins, buttons or whatever your child's imagination dictates.
In addition to these suggestions, a favorite children's project book of mine is the Better Homes and Gardens "New Junior Garden Book" by Felder Rushing (Meredith Books, 1999). The 112 pages are packed with cool projects for all ages, 3 to adult.
If cabin fever has hit, get out into the landscape. Take your little ones to a botanical garden. While most plant and animal life is quiescent or has gone south for the winter and educational programs for children are dormant now, you can still walk around and behold the winter landscape.
Brookside Gardens in Wheaton has a beautifully designed conservatory with lots of plants in flower. The library in the education building houses an impressive collection of children's books. It's open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. Call 301-949-8230 for directions.
Nature centers also are year-round resources for learning about our environment. There's probably one near you.
Brookside Nature Center has discovery rooms, projects and displays. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Phone 301-946-9071 for information. Or stop by and pick up "Nutshell News," listing activities for all Montgomery County Nature centers. Others are Little Bennett in Clarksburg at 301-972-9458; Locust Grove, Bethesda, 301-299-1990; and Meadowside, Rockville; 301-924-4141.
Prince George's County Nature Centers have displays and activities all winter, at Clearwater in Clinton, 301-297-4575; Mount Rainier, 301-927-2163; and Watkins in Upper Marlboro, 301-249-6202. Hours are 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Virginia also has outstanding facilities with activities and displays through winter.
Hidden Oaks in Annandale has many interactive exhibits. Winter hours are noon to 5 p.m., closed Tuesday. Call 703-941-1065. Other Fairfax Nature Centers are Hidden Pond, 703-451-9588 and Riverbend, 703-759-9018.
Arlington County Nature Centers are Gulf Branch, 703-228-3403 and Long Branch, 703-228-6535. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Get a copy of their publication "The Snag" or, for the children, "The Snag for Wee Ones," for all scheduled nature center activities.
Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
GARDENING SITES FOR CHILDREN
Your children can also get a fine garden education surfing cyberspace. The Web sites below are interactive ideas for children and offer, quizzes, games, kids garden products and hundreds of hours worth of horticultural information.
* GLP Kids; www.tpoint.net/neighbor/kids.html
* Children's Indoor Gardening Projects; http://humeseeds.com/kids.htm
* The Children's Corner--Gardening at the Potting Shed; www.vabch.com/gmb/children.htm
* Gardening For Kids; http://geocities.com/EnchantedForest/Glade/3313/index.html
* Kids and Classrooms; www.garden.org/edu/home.asp
* Web Site For Kids; www.garden.com. Search: kids gardening camp
* A new Gardening With Kids catalogue lists more than 100 products for children's enjoyment and learning; (www.kidsgardening.com).
CAPTION: "The New Junior Garden Book" has many projects for children.