What Boys and Girls Alike Need to Succeed at School

Word on the street is that boys aren’t performing as well as girls at school; as a mother of three boys I feel compelled to tune in to discussions like the ones hosted at the Globe and Mail back in 2010.  I try to glean what I can from them, and I’m more than open to advice on raising sons – yet still I often find these conversations alternately a bit dull or depressing.

Whatever social biases result in girls or boys being under-serviced at school should be rooted out, obviously.  But if we can operate on a slightly higher plane and assume that the playing field ought to be level, then it seems like a generalized failing of a group within an education system would only be possible by failing to see those students as individuals.

Yes, of course, let’s be sensitive to patterns of conduct and performance outcomes, but these things would be less important if, as a point of departure, our education system could recognize and nurture as individuals the students who make up a classroom.  One wouldn’t then have to rely on statistical reports revealing that boys are failing at school, because one would know that Ryan and Jason and Thomas are bored/unmotivated/distracted.  And if we really knew those kids, we could do something about it before the failures began.

I find the discussion about these things distressing because with classrooms of 20 or 30 students grouped exclusively according to age (as opposed to interest, need, affinity, or…?), it is hard for even the best teachers to know and nurture students as individuals.  I remember once talking to a teacher who said that she would trade all the reports, all the new teaching techniques, all of the everything that gets thrown at teachers to improve student achievement for one thing:  more teachers.  Put all of the money poured into these studies and reports and redirect them into salaries, she said, because having a relationship with someone who knows and cares about you, made possible through low teacher to student ratios, is the one thing – and I think she may have said it’s the only thing – that consistently makes a difference.  Her view had, to me, the ring of truth in it, and I’ve never forgotten it.

This individual care and attention would help make school relevant too.  These marks that the boys aren’t now achieving, or that girls were once discouraged from achieving, are they worth striving for?  Kids, like adults, don’t usually tune out things that matter to them, but you can’t know what those things are unless you know the children.    Before we lament the lagging of student achievement at school, maybe we should question whether the education that the children are failing to acquire – the one that prizes a narrow definition of academic success according to strict age  limits and few subjects – deserves the importance that is attributed to it.

I’ve chosen a holistic education for my kids – one that honours equally the contributions of the head, heart, hands and spirit (non-religious) because I’m not at all sure that the academic accomplishments so valued in our education system can serve our children well on their own.  It ought to be coupled with full recognition and appreciation of their whole selves.  When my boys move their bodies naturally, fluidly, in a field of sport or while exploring the depths of the ravine, I don’t see a way to let them let off steam so they can get to the real business of their worksheets:  I see robust and magnificent body (or kinesthetic, if we’re being fancy) intelligence.  And I think that without true development of the many intelligences that grace our world, our education system is quite seriously undermined.

I’m not an educator (and am full of respect for the many committed educators I both know and don’t know) but I have a simple view.  Sometimes I think that what students really need isn’t more than same sex classes or technology or tutoring or studies but more people.  Parents, teachers, mentors, and peers who are engaged with the whole person of the girl or boy before them, willing to see them through an early process of learning so that when adulthood comes, they know how to do this for themselves.  I’m not sure there are any short cuts through the village.

Enjoy the Adventure that “Yes” Can Bring: an Interview with Sarah Easterbrook

It’s such a pleasure to introduce Sarah Easterbrook in Toronto.  I’d say something more about her, except that her words on teaching and children say it all.  We are so lucky to have the commitment and enthusiasm of wonderful teachers – it’s an honour to shine the light on them this week at 4Mothers.

~~~~~

What was your proudest moment as a teacher?

My proudest moments are when I have been working with a child on a concept, or an idea that they have found really difficult ~ and then they have that ‘lightbulb’ moment.  That feeling always gives me a buzz, and I’m on cloud nine for the rest of the day.  It can be something as simple as a child recognizing the first letter of their name for the first time, or a child using their words to ask to play with a toy rather than snatching it.

What would you like parents to know (but are too polite to tell them)?

I think I would tell parents anything ~ but only if they asked!

One thing I think we all do, and I constantly challenge myself as parent on this, is to ask “why am I saying ‘no’”?  It can be something as simple as letting the children explore mixing sand and water, to mixing up the different colors of play dough, and now that my children are older, to when they ask to play an online game.

Now I think about why I am saying ‘no’, and try to say ‘yes’ a whole lot more.  I think about what is the worst  thing that can happen if I say ‘yes’ ~ and most of them time, if the worst happens, it may not be a bad thing.

So I would like parents to say ‘yes’ more often and enjoy the adventure that a ‘yes’ can bring.

What has been one of your biggest challenges as a teacher?

Making sure every day is different for the children, and that I don’t give everything at the beginning of the week and have nothing left for the children in my class on Friday.  Pacing myself is something I find really hard, because I want to give 110% to everything, and I can’t all the time.

Who is one of your mentors?

That’s a hard one.  I take inspiration from lots of blogs on the Internet, people coming up with amazing ideas that I can spring board off to adapt for the children I work with.  Examples would be Teach Preschool, The Crafty Crow, Pink and Green Mama, and The Artful Parent.

There is also a wonderful educator called Ken Robinson – I love his ideas and thoughts.  He believes that every child is unique, and that too often education emphasizes academic attainment over creativity.  Creativity is what we should nourish in every child.

I enjoy this cartoon that draws along one of Ken Robinson’s speeches:

I often recommend this talk Ken Robinson gave at a Ted Talk in 2006, about how we need to create an education system that nurtures (rather than undermines) creativity.  A little irreverent in places – but he makes his points really well with humor.

What do your students teach you?

Lots!  The main one is how they take something I have set up, and play with it in many unexpected ways I haven’t thought of.  I love how the children turn my ideas upside down and come up with something much better.

Seeking an End to Battles with the Babysitter

A few years ago, my husband and I made a commitment that we would have regular date nights.  I believe at the time we asserted something about once a week which, well, has remained an assertion and not much more.  But we do take time for just ourselves regularly, and a bi-weekly night for an adult meal and conversation is common.

We needed a commitment to make these nights happen, and more practically speaking, some reliable babysitters which, as anyone who has tried to find them knows, are not always easy to come by.  Which is why we were delighted when a neighbour mentioned his daughter was looking for babysitting work.  She was enthusiastic, had experience with children, and lived a couple of blocks away.  She was younger than our other sitters, but this had significant advantages too, as she was usually available for weekend evenings and on short notice.  It seemed ideal.

And it was for awhile.  Our boys loved her.  They seemed to enjoy that she was young, as she played with them more than other sitters did.  She was training to be a camp counsellor, which meant she knew all kinds of games and tricks to play with kids.  We’d came home, the kids would be in bed, and she’d tell us the news.  

Then something turned.  I think it was our oldest son realizing that what made our new sitter really fun was that she quite distinct from an adult which led him to question precisely where her authority lay.  He began to challenge it, and when he did, his younger brothers did too.  The babysitting reports started to change colour – they once were funny and laden with antics, but now our sitter was tired and troubled by the constant battles with our boys.  

We tried different things to modify the behaviour of the boys.  We offered rewards, like dessert or extra time together, for good behaviour.  We talked about empathy, and remembered that our beloved cousins were about our sitter’s age, and talked about how our cousin would feel if she were in our sitter’s shoes.  We tried removing privileges – my oldest lost a treasured weekly soccer game due to tormenting the sitter.  And still the bad reports from the beleaguered sitter continued.

Part of me thinks perhaps our sitter is just too youthful (she looks young too, unlike other young sitters we’ve had who looked more mature) for the task – our boys need boundaries and she may simply lack the authority to appropriately establish these. Children, like the rest of us, naturally test limits, and maybe the situation is inherently unfair to everybody.  Maybe it’s time to let it go. 

And maybe it is, except that it wasn’t like this at the beginning, we had some decent (if imperfect) sessions with her before they went downhill.  And she is a lovely girl from a nice family, with courage and stamina to boot – she isn’t a quitter – and she wants the work.  Plus she lives down the street and we need sitters!  Back to the drawing board.

Our latest report from the sitter was plain discouraging.  My husband had given the boys a heart-to-heart about the importance of respecting the sitter and still they were terrible.  The next day found them around the table writing notes and cards of apology, and we later walked to the sitter’s house to deliver them.  They made verbal apologies too, and although I was of course there for enforcement (which wasn’t necessary), I got the feeling that the boys genuinely felt contrite for treating her poorly.  I’m hoping all of this will remind them that she’s a real person with real feelings, as well as showing her (and her parents, who were home) that these boys are not entirely raising themselves.

I’ve decided to try again.  After letting things rest for a week, I took a deep breath and booked her for this coming weekend.  Cross your fingers for me.  Better yet, if you have any advice on how to make this babysitting relationship work, please dispense it.  I’m all ears.

Still in Summer

061School has started for us. The lunch boxes are pulled out, the paper forms flow freely, the schoolyard dramas are underway, the boys are (thankfully) excited to be back, and the teachers and parents are refreshed.

The weather has been more than nice enough for biking the 2km trek to school.  It’s a lovely way to start and end our school days.  Transition has been smooth.

Truth be known though, my heart is nowhere the school. It’s trailing behind somewhere in ravine, or maybe the garden, or even maybe the pool up the street. But settled in summer it is, without many signs of moving on.

Stumbling Over Sex Talk With Kids

It happened earlier in the summer at the dinner table.  My husband was at work; it was just me and the three boys eating together.  There was conversation as usual, and we veered into the realm of making babies.

I was nonplussed; we’d talked about this before.  My boys love hearing stories of their birth, my older boys were present for the homebirth of my youngest son and, feeling like a fairly cool mom when it comes to sexuality, I chatted away with them.  Until my oldest asked:

“But how does the sperm get to the egg?”

And I answered this, sort of.  And then heard this:

“No, but how does the daddy’s sperm get into the mommy’s body to reach the egg?”  Looking directly at me.

I am embarrassed to confess it, but I continued to be evasive and I did not answer his question.  For the first time, I was unsure how to.  Sure, my two younger boys were there, and I wasn’t sure everyone needed to be in on this conversation at the same level.  And sure, there was my friend who, being a fairly groovy mom herself, told her young children precisely how the sperm gets to the egg, only to have her 6 year old daughter burst into tears of fear at the thought of a penis entering her vagina.

But the basic truth is, I wasn’t able to comfortably answer my son’s questions because doing so wasn’t as natural as I had assumed it would be, and I hadn’t prepared myself otherwise.  He had never asked such pointed questions before, and I suspect he had overheard kids at school talking about this, and he wanted to either confirm or learn more about it with me.  This made my evasion all the worse, because the very last thing I want to do is leave my kids’ sexual education to the schoolyard.

Intuition having failed me, I sat on this paltry exchange for a bit.  Then I pulled myself together and did what I always do when I’m unsure of something: research.  I read some recommended book lists and book reviews, and then reserved several texts from the library.

And I tried again.

For those of you who, like me, may not be quite as cool as you think you are when it comes to talking about sex with your kids, here are some tips gleaned from my recent trip down this road:

1.  Review the text yourself first.   See if it’s appropriate for your child’s age and both of your temperaments.  Some books depict quite traditional views about sex that may not reflect either your outlook or your life.  Some may have too much or too little information for your needs.  Hunt around for the right tone.

2.  Check out the illustrations.  Cartoon representations fill the pages of many of these books.  Playful is good, I guess, but I found some of these pics quite garish and didn’t want to share them.

3.  Read everything.  I almost always love reading to my kids, but I do not like reading comics.  My middle son knew I was just reading the text of one of the sex ed books and not the bubbles above the cartoon figures – these comments were mostly exclamations and short quips that I felt added nothing to the book and were tedious to repeat.  Upon being specifically asked though, I complied and read these silly captions.  The result was one boy’s infectious laughter that soon had his brothers in stitches, even the newly-turned three year old who probably doesn’t know why he’s laughing and doesn’t care.  Neither do I, come to think of it.  A room of laughing boys is a precious thing.

4.  Get comfortable.  This is harder for some of us than others, but the more at ease we are with what we’re reading (and learning -I got a bit of a refresher from these books too – it’s been awhile since I’ve thought about vas deferens), the more at ease our kids will be.

As it turned out, I was quite comfortable talking about sex with my boys once I had some good tools, a.k.a. books.  Having some guidance on how to do this, along with the shared context of our reading together, has greased the wheels of conversation nicely for us.  I’m hopeful (but not cocky) that in the future, I won’t be caught unprepared when called upon to be a source of information and guidance about sex.  But if I am, I know what to do.  I do so love a good book.

ps.  At the moment, we’re reading It’s So Amazing:  A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families by Robie Harris.  If you know of a good title, please share it.

 

Hot Summer Drinks: Teas from the Garden

039Most summertime drinks rightly revolve around icy, chilled concoctions to quench our thirsts on hot summer nights. I venture, however, to make a case for tea, even in the summer.

Maybe not on the very hottest nights (and fellow Torontonians will know there haven’t been that many of those this summer) but pretty much all of the rest of the time, I love a good tea. And never more so than when the goods come from the garden. It’s a cinch to grow some lovely herbs in pots or in the yard that make perfect summertime teas.

First up is Fresh Mint Herbal Tea. Almost too easy to grow, mint is best grown in pots or defined areas, because it will spread and take over your garden.  With a few simple steps, you can have some for the cold winter nights when a hot tea is perfectly intuitive: just wash the sprigs, bunch, hang upside down until they’re completely dry, crush the leaves, and store in an airtight jar. But use the fresh leaves for a tea now, and you’re in for a special treat. Bonus: mint is reputed to relieve upset stomach and enhance mental focus, and its menthol can relieve cold symptoms like coughing and congestion.

And next is my all-time favourite, Chamomile Tea. I’ve grown chamomile for a few years in the garden, and it’s so lovely. It’s flowers, from which you steep the tea, are small dainty things, white delicate petals encircling a yellow bulb in the centre.  Chamomile will propogate itself (although less dramatically than mint), and encountering new patches of chamomile throughout the garden feels like bumping into old friends. You pick the flower off just at it’s base to make tea. If you have extra, spread the clean flowers on a sheet until completely dry, and then store in an airtight jar for the colder months. For now though, enjoy the fresh flowers in a teapot on the porch, and you’ve got a perfect summer beverage for a leisurely summer night. Bonus: chamomile has anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and sedative qualities.

Fresh Mint or Fresh Chamomile Herbal Tea

You’ll need:

1/3 cup fresh mint or fresh chamomile flowers
2 cups boiling water
honey (optional – I never add it, but you might want to)

Place mint leaves or chamomile flowers in a ceramic pot and add boiling water, steep for 5 to 10 minutes.  Savour, smell, and sip.  Summer.

Sexy Scrabble? Ways to Connect With Your Spouse

scrabble-320x213When I reached the doors of Dr. Jess’ Talking Sex night, Nathalie met me with, “We’re 20 years older than everyone else here”.  I decided that Nathalie was probably exaggerating, and she was: we were only 18 years older.  Our icebreaker was to speak to two women we didn’t know at the event based on – get this – liking each others’ shoes!  I was wearing a pair of thrifted pink slip on shoes to go with my jean skirt, and was relieved when a 20-something in 4 inch heels and tight black cocktail dress spoke to me anyway. “They look comfortable,” she said placidly.

Nathalie and I had commented to each other that Dr. Jess’ talk would have been different had the crowd been older or geared to women with children, and it probably would have been. But what I learned from that night is that all of us, whatever age or strata we find ourselves in, have deeply-felt concerns and questions around sex. The young women asked: What if I started out as the crazy girl in bed but now sometimes just want to make love? What do I do when I want to try something new in bed and he laughs it off? What if there’s love but our sex life is unfulfilling because he’s not interested… won’t this just get worse with time?

Real concerns of real people, and that’s why I was impressed when Dr. Jess said to the dressed-up women in the room: Hot sex is what makes you and your partner satisfied. If that’s missionary once a week in the dark, and you both feel good about it, that’s hot sex. She proceeded to talk and offer tips and techniques because this comment is not exactly one size fits all, but just by saying it and other comments like it, I thought she helped keep the night from becoming a live version of a Cosmo article.

There was lots to take from the talk (and I did pay attention to the demos and slides), but I find it’s this element of real I come back to the most. Because when I think about it, many of the things that sustain my relationship with my spouse are, when itemized to the outside world, quite prosaic.  They work, though.  Here are a few positions we fall back on, to make some space for ourselves as a couple amidst the mayhem and magic of our lives.

1. We like to eat dinner together, just the two of us, at a restaurant.  Also known as a date night, I suppose, but date nights can be almost anything, and we almost always prefer to eat and talk. We never seem to do these as regularly as we’re supposed to (weekly), but we do make them happen.  They feel like regular deposits into a long-term investment.

2. We sit on our front porch and talk. We live in a neighbourhood where if you do this, you will see other people walk by and recognize some faces and have a sense of place. We’ve watched a number of rainstorms this way. Nothing. Better.

3.  We take a walk together and talk.  Sometimes we bike ride, which is more fun, but it’s harder to talk on bikes in the city, so walking is better for connection/conversation.

4. Sleep.  Giving each other the opportunity to take a much-needed nap can shift everything. As I read once somewhere, sleep is the silent remedy.  It was true eight years ago when we had our first son, and it’s true now.

5. We play Scrabble. The time to play is scarce, so when we get to, it’s a treat. It also feels exclusive, as I don’t play with anyone else. In university, my roommate said that Scrabble saved her parents’ marriage:  on the verge of separating, they vowed to sit together every night no matter what and play a game – and it got them through. At 19 years old, this made only so much sense to me, and gratefully it’s not why my husband and I play. But Scrabble’s a good game with good company, and obviously has power in it, and I love to play with my husband.

This is a selected list; sometimes there’s a bit more glamour in our lives than what’s noted above.  But we’re big on simple pleasures, and this list is solid.  Tried and true.  Real.

What do you do to stay connected to your love?

Photo credit

Ripley’s Aquarium and What Came After

065The newest big attraction in Toronto was introduced several months ago:  we finally have our own aquarium.  Ripley’s Aquarium has gotten good reviews, in spite of tickets that are quite pricey.  With an aunt and nephew visiting from out of town, and three kids keen to go, and my own lifelong wonder of the creatures of the deep, we went.

There were the requisite sharks, stingrays, schools of beautiful and sometimes astonishing fish, a petting station (horseshoe crabs), and a particularly ethereal selection of jellyfish.  There  were also less requisite attractions, like play apparatus designated for children in bright colours, like tunnels and slides.

And it was very crowded.  I think the aquarium was good, but my attention was so focused on not losing a child that I couldn’t entirely take it in.  I imagine the kids could only absorb so much too.  I found myself fantasizing about being able to return and actually see the exhibits, rather than peer at them.

Generally I don’t love going to busy venues, so when I make these treks I tend to feel accomplished – like Something Happened – and I hope the children enjoy them.  It’s summer, and my kids are not heavily scheduled, and I do like finding interesting opportunities for us to experience and learn together.  It was too busy at the aquarium to really learn as much as we could about what we were seeing, but it was worthwhile exposure, and There’s nothing like a white seahorse creature that looks like a bunch of leaves to feed curiosity.  It was successful overall.

And yet I doubt the aquarium, its glamour notwithstanding, encapsulated the primary learning opportunities that arose that day.  These likely took place at the much more prosaic Chinese restaurant we dined at afterwards, where my son turned the lazy Susan quickly, and it knocked over a tall pot of tea towards me. I fell off my seat trying to get away but failed, and now have second degree burns over much of my left thigh.

I suppose there’s a science lesson in there somewhere.  The kids saw how I treated (or tried to treat) the injury and know I didn’t sleep well because the burn continued through the night.  (At 3am, I asked my husband whether the ibuprofen and Tylenol tablets I was taking together we’re still good because they weren’t doing much.  “It’s Tylenol, not morphine,” he replied.)  My kids can see the scarring and my reaction when they touch my leg, and I suspect we all have a new respect for heat.

But it’s when I realize that a boy feels blameworthy for the injury that the learning recedes and the knowing comes forward. It’s then when, in spite of the dishes and the blog post and the new project deadlines waiting for me, I clear a space.  In the dark, I stay with my baby and whisper to reassure, and then just to talk, and we wait for sleep to come.

Sharks, rays, tea, burns.  Learning, knowing.  Full, full days.

Kids and Fishing

2011_09 - various 032I’ve long been a convert to the idea that children (and adults) thrive with regular opportunities to explore and interact with the natural world, and more or less nodded my way through The Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv when I read it several years ago.  Reading Louv’s arguments felt less like a revelation than a discovery of the unconscious familiar, as if he were putting into words a series of unformed ideas that already existed in my head.

The one exception to this familiarity was Louv’s section on hunting and fishing, which did feel new and prompted thoughts I didn’t have before.  It’s been a good while since I read this, but what I most remember is that Louv makes some arguments – a bit tentatively, if I recall – in favour of hunting and fishing.  He suggests that it’s an important means by which many people still interact with nature in a world of declining exposure, and that this demographic can support environmental conservation through advocating for the preservation of hunting and fishing grounds.

I find myself thinking about this often, because my husband loves to fish, and he is sharing that love with our children.  Louv doesn’t hunt, but he does fish, and he recommends catch and release.  I’m actually much more comfortable with my family’s fishing expeditions if they are catching fish for food (and while we don’t hunt, I feel the same way about hunting).  We eat fish, and assuming that applicable fishing regulations and quotas are followed, catching our food feels like a connected and responsible way of eating, much more so that buying fish from the grocery store (which we also do).

But sometimes my husband takes my kids out fishing for fun.  They never keep fish for mounting or display, but they will pursue catch and release fishing.  As someone who doesn’t want to harm animals unnecessarily, I struggle with this.  Catch and release is not without harm – some fish that are released will nevertheless die from injuries sustained when they were caught.

I’ve talked to my husband about this.  He is not defensive about it, possibly out of respect for my feelings, but also because he is comfortable with how and why he fishes.  When we are outdoors (at the cottage, at a seaside vacation, at the lakefront down the road), he wants to interact with his environment.  In particular, he loves water.  He knows that catch and release is imperfect, but it mitigates the consequences of sport fishing.  As for food, he loves and appreciates eating a fresh catch.

It’s also become an important way of connecting with the kids, and a love shared with their grandfather – we often have inter-generation fishing.  It’s also been a huge opportunity for learning and exploration outdoors.  Both of my older boys could independently wield a fishing rod by the age of 5; no doubt my youngest one will too unless he masters it even earlier as youngest children will often do.  My 8 year old got a fly fishing rod for his birthday and caught his first fish with it last week.  The kids know about fishing equipment and technique, types of fish, preferred fishing habitat, which lures attract which fish, and whatever else they talk about on their expeditions which can last hours upon hours.

I can’t tell you what else they talk about on their expeditions because I don’t go.  Routinely I am invited, they always want me to come, and routinely I don’t go because I don’t enjoy it.  But Louv has helped me have some equilibrium with my husband’s and children’s love of fishing:  within the confines of fishing not for sustenance, they are fishing responsibly and inhabiting their natural surroundings more fully than they otherwise would, which probably translates into a visceral rather than just intellectual desire to protect the environment.

This isn’t the only way to create powerful bonds with our surroundings, and it’s not the only way we do it.  We pick berries at the cottage too, and kayak, and swim, and find snakes.  We bike at home, go to parks and ravines, and participate in the PINE project, an amazing Toronto organization that fosters deep connection between individuals and communities to their natural environment.  We garden.

As with so many things, maybe the best thing to do is remember that there are many roads to Rome, and few are without potholes.  I went out for dinner last night, and by coincidence a friend mentioned that she just finished reading The Last Child in the Woods, after which she resolved to get her 8 year old daughter outside more.  The goal was to get to the park by bike, which her daughter is still a bit afraid to ride.  The first day they tried this, they ended up at Legoland.

But they are trying again today.  And maybe they’ll end up at Canada’s Wonderland.   Or maybe, at this very moment, they are riding on the boardwalk at just the right speed, with the breeze blowing in their hair, already planning their next adventure outside.

 

Learning in the Garden

095One aspect of summer that has grown in importance and scale over the years is our garden.  My husband started it on his own, trying to tame the very elaborate and overgrown garden that was our backyard.  It was pretty but impractical or worse:  not only was there nowhere to walk or play, but enormous rosebushes threatened our babies with thorny tendrils (talons?) at every turn.

And… I wanted to grow food.

So we worked at it.  I joined my husband’s efforts, and we have slowly, incrementally, created a fairly decent garden out of a small and partly shaded space of perhaps 500 square feet.  It looks like we’ve done it ourselves – there’s no landscape designer’s touch here – but it’s a living, producing garden where there wasn’t one before.

And… our kids are learning about growing food.

It’s true that they’re not always involved in every step.  At the end of February, for instance, when I planted my seeds in the basement, I did not invite the kids.  Normally I love doing hands-on activities with the kids, but I know (some of) my limits, and putting a 7, 5 and 2 year old together with soil, water, and lots of seed packet (and tiny seeds!)  in a subterranean room was beyond what I could gracefully do.

With confessionals such as this out of the way though, it’s still completely possible to share lots of gardening love with children, and I do.  They’ve watch seeds emerge under the warmth of the basement grow lights, and see the seedlings planted into the backyard and into pots.  They ask about things that grow, learn what seeds look like, and try planting new ones they’ve found.  They become curious.

They helped me build raised beds, which we tried for the first time this year.   When the soil was poured in from the local garden centre, they helped me carry it into the wheelbarrow and fill those beds (which, by the way, hold a deceptive lot of soil).  I assigned one bed to each of the older boys, who decided  what to plant there.  We witness how their arrangements are panning out.  We are all watching, for the first time, how dramatically larger and stronger the plants in the raised beds are than the ones in the regular garden beds.  I’m trying to show them which of the tomato branches we should be pruning, with the understanding that my knowledge is incomplete and growing like theirs.

And bless them, they eat the food.  The lettuces, the kale, the cucumbers have been in for awhile now.  Raspberries are prized and I often decline the little bursts of sun sweetness to give my babes just a bit more.  Snap and snow peas are, well, snapped up, but they won’t be able to eat all the beans which are just starting to come in so I’ll get some of those.  The radishes are all pulled, but they know we can sow again.  The chard and possibly the beets have failed – we’ll see if the roots are doing better than the green tops.  They know to give the herbs more time.  The mushroom logs have been ravaged by the raccoons, and they know this is my biggest disappointment of the summer.  The ground is littered with the leaves of our potatoes, which we trust are growing peacefully below.  They sometimes bend to eat the plantain sprouting wild where the grass once was, and wonder why I am not making soup from the wood sorrel.  They cook with me.

The garden comes at a cost, as does everything else we choose to do – it occupies the space something else could have used.  Our yard is really not a yard anymore, but a garden.  My children have no open green space to play (although there is a little paved garage space for ball).

But I hope that there is something for them in this garden all the same, and I hope it is there during their everyday wanderings among the plants, or when my son says he’s going to the garden to have some space to himself.  It is so important to me that they are engaged in their food for the benefit of their health and for the environment, but I also hope there is a simple pleasure in it.   It’s the pleasure of being outside, of watching things grow wherever we find ourselves, and knowing we can nurture and help that growth along.  The concept of fruition isn’t theoretical in the garden:  the children can see and feel and taste it.  The garden also offers lessons in patience, observation, and failure.  Sometimes a seed is planted, takes a long time to grow, grows and dies, or doesn’t sprout at all – there’s no re-set button then, only next spring.  Sometimes our seeds grow well, just as experience and attention suggested they would.  And sometimes seeds reach skyward beyond our imaginings.

My sons’ school is wonderful in its strong ecological ethic, and the children learn about gardens there.  But in Canada, the heart of the growing season falls during summer holidays (when, once upon a time, children were needed to help parents in their fields and gardens), so working in the garden and watching it unfold is special to summer learning at home.

And if ever there was inspiration to garden with children (or anyone) in the city, this is it:  Ron Finley’s Ted Talk about guerilla gardening in South Central Los Angeles: