My family is nothing if not outdoorsy. We’re constantly outside, enjoying everything the environment has to offer. And while we love the benefits of adventurous family activities like rafting, hiking, and camping, we’ve also suffered our share of trouble when learning about nature’s defenses. Most memorable are the run-ins we’ve had with poisonous plants. It took just one episode to realize we needed to learn how to identify poison plants quickly, so we could keep making memories outside without risking our health and comfort.
The best way I’ve learned to teach my kids anything is through play. They’re at three different stages—the youngest loves simple songs and hand motions, my middle child enjoys age-appropriate challenges, and my oldest likes the authority of teaching the other two. I use these developmental milestones to my advantage when creating memorization games to teach everyone which plants they can touch and which are off-limits.
Here are four educational games that help kids learn how to identify poison plants, without a boring lecture.
Silly Sumac Song
This is a Johnson family original you’re welcome to steal for your own family. It’s so simple it’s silly, but my kids love to sing it as they search for plants that fit the description. Our toddler delights in clapping along. It’s sung to the tune of the popular preschool song B-I-N-G-O. Try adding your own descriptive rhymes!
As a concerned parent, I used to drone on and on about the dangers of certain plants and why we must be careful. Now, I just grab the art supplies and let the kids get to work on crafty representations of the most common poison plants native to our area. Pipe cleaners make for great branches, and not just for the predictable brown ones. Green pipe cleaners or twisted construction paper can represent the vine-like stems that often accompany poison oak, and decoupage can give leaves-of-three clusters their telltale shimmery sheen. Older kids who know about poisonous berries can use red or cream colored pom-poms where appropriate. Hand out awards for the most realistic, the most poisonous, and the most creative production.
This game is best for older kids since it requires an understanding of both poisonous plants and their lookalike counterparts. The goal is to spot faux offenders. For example, that could be common seeds or buds that appear to be pokeberries but pose no real threat. The “player” who finds the most benevolent imitators is the winner!
Play Pretend Scientist
Make-believe has a special way of lodging lessons into developing minds, so I use it to make a game out of symptom identification. When the kids come in from outdoors, I let my oldest don a lab coat and head lamp to take charge of tick checks and allergic reaction monitoring. Not only does the head lamp resemble the head mirror featured in old-fashioned doctor photos, but it also illuminates small rashes before they begin to spread. If she does spot superficial irritation, she “prescribes” a home remedy—maybe a baking soda bath or topical salve—based on the poisonous substance she believes is causing the problem.
Act It Out
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a great video that shows the dramatic factors at play when a poison plant (or its chemical) touches the skin. The surprising immune response can become a theatrical production at home with a few funny homemade costume pieces and some witty dialogue. Let your kids dress up like as T cells, digestive organs, antigens, and leaves to act out different tragedies based on various poisonous plants. The first person in the audience to guess which plant was touched (or consumed) gets a prize.
I’ve had luck using fun rewards to encourage kids to memorize things, and poisonous plants are no exception. When my kids successfully demonstrate a working knowledge of botanical no-nos, I reward them in kind: with small, hardy plants of their own to nurture.
How do you teach youngsters which plants to touch and which to avoid? Share your tips with us on Twitter @TomsofMaine.
Image sources: Flickr | Bethany Johnson
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