By Barbara A. Lewis, author of Social Emotional Stories: Lessons and Learning from Plants and Animals
Imagine this: one day, workers at a horse farm in San Diego wake to an awful sight. Twenty-three of their beloved horses are very sick. Searching the stalls, they find poisonous oleander leaves mixed in with carrots and apples. With this knowledge, the workers are able to act quickly and save the lives of the horses.
The beautiful oleander plant doesn’t look dangerous. Its bushes show off with flashy blossoms in white, pink, red, purple, yellow, or orange. Its flowers smell fresh and sweet, like spring. But oleanders have a deadly secret: they’re highly poisonous. And they are often planted around schools and in yards.
In a similar story, a six-year-old girl was in her family’s garden when she first smelled the top of a poisonous white hemlock plant and then tasted it. She broke out in a serious rash and had swelling on her face. By evening she was feeling lethargic and was having trouble breathing. Fortunately, her mother got medical help right away and the girl recovered.
These true stories about nature have important lessons to teach us. Being mindful of potential risks and fostering a healthy respect for the natural world—as well as a deep appreciation of its wonders—is important for everyone. And it is essential for those of us with children in our care, whether we’re exploring nature together in a schoolyard, a park, a backyard, or beyond. Even older children need to be aware of poisonous plants and know how to safely enjoy them. You can help children learn to be cautious yet curious by sharing nature stories like those above, both of which have happy endings.
You might say to yourself, “Sure, but I can’t identify every poisonous plant!” Rest assured that most people cannot. What you can do is educate children. You can explain to young children that the plants outside are to be looked at, not tasted or picked. You can remind them to ask an adult before sniffing or handling unfamiliar flowers and other plants. When children are older, they can take classes about plants and learn which ones they can safely eat or touch, as well as which ones must be avoided. The planet is full of edible and even medicinal plants. Knowing their names and what they look like is both fascinating and valuable.
To begin exploring these ideas, consider the following outdoor activity for kids, which can alert them to being careful while still enjoying the natural surroundings.
Hidden in Plain Sight Activity
To prepare for this activity, first select a safe and friendly yard, park, or other outdoor location you can visit with children. Then gather some small objects such as rocks, tennis balls, and toys and hide them beneath the trees, nestled in grass, or behind bushes. Make sure they are hidden well enough not to be immediately noticed by children but can easily be seen when pointed out. This will strengthen the concept that things can be “hidden in plain sight.”
Next, bring children to the outdoor spot and point out the beautiful plants and trees around them. You might know and share some of their names. You can also invite children to name the ones they know. Explain that while these plants are beautiful and interesting, we can all keep ourselves safe by being cautious about them.
Ask children to find the objects you have hidden and place them in a basket. Have children sit down around the basket and talk about the idea of something being hidden in plain sight. Next, share the oleander story and discuss the following questions with children, along with others you might choose for your group.
- Why do you think the horses ate the oleander? A horse usually can sense poisonous plants and won’t eat them. However, the leaves were mixed with apples and carrots. Horses love apples and carrots so much that they must have ignored or not noticed the poisonous oleander.
- What are some safe and healthy ways to interact with nature—especially with plants we aren’t familiar with? The best approach is just to look at plants, not lick or eat them. Sometimes simply touching or smelling can cause an illness or allergic reaction.
- How can we make positive decisions when things are hidden, confusing, or mixed together? It’s easy and natural to miss hidden things unless you are looking for them. Explain that just as the horses overlooked the oleander leaves mixed with sweet apples and carrots, it’s easy for people to overlook or stop noticing dangerous things. And it can be confusing when we encounter situations where good and bad things are mixed together. For example, sometimes kids might join other children in activities or behaviors that seem fun but can be hurtful or dangerous. It’s important for children to talk to adults when they have questions or feel worried. We can also think carefully about the consequences of doing something before we decide whether to do it.
- Why is it important to speak up if you think you or someone else might be in danger? Acknowledge that speaking up isn’t always easy. Help children identify trusted adults who they can go to when they need help.
Optional Activity Extension
Supplies: Vegetable or herb seeds, soil, plastic cups or other planting containers
If you like, end the activity by helping children plant vegetable or herb seeds in plastic cups or in a garden. Children can take care of the plants as they grow, giving them proper water and sunlight. When the plants mature, children can celebrate the experience with a healthy, safe, and tasty harvest!
Barbara A. Lewis is an author and educator who teaches kids how to think and solve real problems. Her elementary school students initiated the cleanup of hazardous waste, improved sidewalks, planted thousands of trees, and even instigated and pushed through several state laws and an amendment to a national law. She has been featured in many national newspapers and magazines and on news programs, and her books have won Parenting’s Reading Magic Award and have been named “Best of the Best for Children” by the American Library Association, among other honors.
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