Using Wildflowers to Teach Children Biodiversity
The range of different wildflowers in nature easily connects children to the biodiversity of the natural world. Children can observe wildflowers in most environments from urban to rural. Even plants regarded as "weeds" serve a purpose and teach children the interconnectedness of life. A walk through a new construction site will often yield observations of newly sprouting plants, while strips of land between on/off car ramps sprout clover and dandelions, both food sources for pollinators. Exploring the area around your house and your child’s school can be an adventure to discover the multitude of living creatures that depend on just these small patches of plants to survive.
Wildflowers, Native Plants, and So-Called Weeds
Labels for plants come with the inherent bias of the gardener. If a gardener doesn’t want a certain flower in their garden, they will often label it a weed. It is a subjective term. The same is true for wildflowers. The label can be applied to plants growing in the “wild.” The most stable term is “native plant,” which refers to any plant that evolved within a specific region. Native plant is the term used by scientists, including ecologists and horticulturalists. Native plants evolved along with their ecosystems and are intrinsically linked to the organisms that live in them—insects, mammals, microorganisms, fungi, and birds. This means native plants are critical in supporting biodiverse habitats.
Activities For Children
The benefits of ecologically-based science activities for children include instilling a strong sense of well-being and resilience, as well as nurturing creative and critical thinking skills. There are many ways to engage children in biodiversity lessons. Some children will enjoy learning about the specific native plants (host plants) that support butterflies, while others might become fascinated by the way in which trees talk to one another—through an interconnected network of roots, bacteria, and fungi. Middle-schoolers and teens might want to learn biodiversity through their interest in social action and environmental justice. Even a walk down a city street offers multiple chances to observe biodiversity through wildflowers sprouting from sidewalk cracks, around building foundations and vacant lots.
Toddlers and Preschoolers
- Go for a Nature Walk: On the walk, notice every flower, shrub, and tree. For children learning numbers, make the walk into a counting activity. Extend the walk’s findings into an art activity by creating a collage showing the number of flowers sighted or by drawing a simple graph.
- Observe Plant and Animal Relationships: During a nature walk, note which flowers attract the most bees. Notice which trees are filled with birds and ask questions like, “What do you suppose they are doing? Are they nesting? Looking for food?”
- Create a Nature Journal: Use a small notebook and encourage your child to fill it with drawings, collage, and observations from your nature walks.
- Share books about George Washington Carver: Read about George Washington Carver, an agricultural scientist and inventor, who was also an artist and contributed greatly to our modern crop system.
- Identify Plants: When using plant identification apps, remember that they can misidentify plants. Some popular apps are known to misidentify beneficial native plants and label them as “weeds.” For instance, the common violet is an important resource for pollinators, yet the modern landscaping industry has categorized it as a weed because its goal is to create uniform lawns. Teach children to verify plant identifications by using at least two identification apps. Be sure they come from an expert source or have a verification system, like iNaturalist’s Seek app. Paperback field guides are a great resource, too, because they usually provide photos of the plant in a few different stages. Book identification guides are often divided into series that cover smaller regional areas, making them more accurate. Look to your Native Plant Society’s local chapter for handbook recommendations. Some organizations even publish their own state specific handbooks.
- Plant a Pollinator Garden: Pollinator gardens support biodiversity through native flowers that host insects. This in turn attracts birds and other wildlife, creating a diverse habitat. The two most important rules in pollinator gardening are to avoid pesticides (or fertilizers) and to plant native flowers. Read our article on how to create a pollinator garden.
- Focus on your Ecoregion: North America is divided into a number of ecoregions with specific plants and animals unique to that area. Check out the National Wildlife Federation’s ecoregion page to learn which keystone plants are native to your area. Go on a walk to see if you and your child can find these key species.
- Press Leaves and Flowers: Using an old heavy book or a purchased flower press, place leaves and small flowers between sheets of absorbent paper for a few weeks until dried. Children can use these pressings in their nature journal or create artwork. Be certain that the leaves and flowers you pick are neither poisonous nor from an endangered plant.
- Learn about Pollinator Relationships: Research the native pollinators in your area through books by insect specialists like Heather Holm or websites like the North American Butterfly Association. Many insects mimic the look and color of yellow jackets as a defense mechanism. On walks, see if you and your child can identify the harmless pollinators that do this like hover flies.
Tweens and Teens
- Complete a Biodiversity Audit: Stake out a small area in your yard or school grounds and count the number of different species observed. This can also be completed in forests and gardens to get a general idea of the diversity in an area. Check out the World Wildlife Fund’s example.
- Volunteer with an Invasive Plant Strike Team: Invasive plants are “exotic” (meaning not native to the region) and spread vigorously. Japanese Knotweed is an example of an invasive plant on the east coast that is pushing native plants out of their habitats and endangering pollinator populations. Look to your state’s website to discover which plants are invasive in your area and where to sign up for volunteer events.
- Keep a Biodiversity Log: A log does not have to be filled entirely with scientific counts and technical drawings. Teens who enjoy fiction writing can add poetry and short stories about their favorite plants and even submit them to literary journals or contests.
- Study Ethnobotany: Learn about which wildflowers were present on the continent before the 1600s and how indigenous peoples used them.
- Research Topics of Interest: Topics can be anything from the negative effects of commercial soil additives on native plant populations to focusing on a specific native plant, such as terrestrial orchids. In North America, terrestrial orchids, like the pink lady’s slipper, have a symbiotic relationship with fungi that make it nearly impossible to transplant the flowers successfully. Teens might enjoy becoming involved in conservation issues surrounding plants like these, as well as learning about the connection between native plants and climate justice.
- Read Stories and News Articles that about Teens Working at the Intersection of Biodiversity and Environmental Justice: Start with Braiding Sweetgrass for Young Adults: A Guide to the Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer with illustrations by Nicole Neidhardt.
Families with children of all ages can also continue to understand the complex relationship between wildflowers and biodiversity by reading together. Earth-positive books promoting biodiverse practices abound. The Lorax by Dr. Seuss is a classic read aloud for young children, while Douglass Tallamy’s Nature’s Best Hope (Young Readers’ Edition): How You Can Save the World in Your Own Yard is written for older children. There are many ways to learn and become involved in promoting biodiversity—so jump in and explore!
About the Author
V. Kulikow is a former Montessori teacher and youth services librarian. She currently works as a UX designer and enjoys content creation both with words and images. On weekends you can find her gardening, taking nature photos, and working on her garden design certification through the Native Plant Trust.