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sEPTEMBER, o'HARA ELEMENTARY sCHooLYARD, PiTTsBuRGH, And remembering My own elementary schoolyard in Lexington

My daughters' elementary school playground was renovated during the summer before Hazel started kindergarten, and an area that had been scraggly with weeds and bare dirt is now thickly mulched and decorated with a number of imaginative vehicles for play, including a bulldozer, school bus, and fire truck. Unquestionably, it is an improvement over the half-living grass that grew there before in the soil compacted under those hundreds of little feet. This is now the officially designated kindergarten playground, needed because so much of the playground equipment for the older kids was inaccessible to height-challenged climbers.

The playground at my childhood school was simple: a jungle gym, monkey bars, swings, a slide, and a balance beam. None of these items was connected to the other. In contrast, the best playgrounds today enable a child to climb a ladder, do monkey bars, run across a swinging bridge, stop in a turret, and slide down a slide all in sequence, often with other entrance or exit options along the path. Playgrounds today are generally much more exciting than they were in my childhood, and playground designers are actually celebrated for their contributions to children's fitness and imaginations.

Whether because of the deficient playground or not, most of my memories of recess don't involve the playground equipment at all. Yes, I remember swinging on swings and jumping off, and I remember being jealous of the children who could swing easily along the monkey bars, when I did well to grab one bar beyond my starting position. But mostly, I remember playing in the field, attempting cartwheels and doing somersaults, making clover chains, and playing with buckhorn plantain (Plantago lanceolata), which we called toe-knockers. These little plants send up a slender stalk from their flattened, ground-level leaves. The stalk is topped by a nondescript, slightly fuzzy egg-shaped head about the size of a small bumblebee. Running barefoot among them sometimes left me with a few stalks stuck between my toes, as if I had combed them out of the grass. Bare feet are probably not allowed these days during recess, for fear of injuries and lawsuits.

Plantain is a common yard weed, one of those that grows low and seems to pop up flower heads as soon as the mower passes. It indicates soil that is a bit compacted and not quite nutrient balanced. It also lacks an attractive flower, and its rosette of leaves at ground level hampers efforts to establish grass or other small seeded plants around it. However, in function if not beauty, it has some redeeming qualities, not least of which is that it can draw children down to the lawn and encourage them to look closer.

I have fond memories of picking toe-knockers, twisting the wiry stem around my index finger and flicking off the seed head with my thumb. When performing this ritual, we would recite the line "Momma had a baby and its head popped off," and if we succeeded, the flower head would fly perhaps two feet in the air, a satisfying sendoff after decapitation. I remember picking large crabgrass blades and blowing through them between our thumbs, making a tremendous noise like a badly played clarinet. We picked the larger red clover (pink, really, but its official name is red clover), gently pulled a cluster of skinny pink florets from it, and sucked the nectar from their base. Like honeysuckle, when it worked, I could taste the tiniest bit of sweet nectar, and it was no mystery to me why bees chose those flowers or why honey is sweet.

Except for the clover, I didn't know even the common names for any of these plants, and I didn't learn scientific names until I studied plant taxonomy in college or weed science in grad school. Since I didn't think of the plantain head as a flower, I wouldn't even have known how to look it up in a flower identification book. I knew these plants only for their uses to me, and most of these uses wouldn't have translated into anything a grownup would write a book about. They are all considered weeds in turf, and are all on the enemy list of any lawn service herbicide application.

My daughters' elementary school has minimal pesticide applications. Here in Pennsylvania, parents can choose to be on a pesticide notification registry, and parents on this registry are notified anytime a pesticide is applied in or on the school grounds. Though brand names are not included in the notification, I can tell from the context which products are likely being applied. Using my weed science sleuthing skills, I have deduced that Roundup is sometimes used around the edges of the buildings, but no herbicides are applied either to the athletic fields or the lawn areas. I've noticed they are careful to apply even the Roundup on days when kids are not in school, such as teacher in-service days. I appreciate this carefulness, whether the reason is for safety or simply to avoid alarming parents. I think they've done a good job minimizing herbicide use, and I can tell that they really aren't spraying the lawns, because the weeds are still there, neatly mowed along with the grass.

So my kids aren't deprived of weeds on the playground. But I've shared my weird weed rituals with them, hoping they'll know what to do someday, if they're ever confronted by a playground field with limited climbing equipment. They're not particularly interested right now, truth be told. They just don't seem to get it when I talk about what I used to do on the playground.

First, they don't have that much free time at recess. In cold or wet weather they have indoor recess, and when they do have outdoor recess, I'm guessing it is about half the time that we had in my childhood. When we were in Chicago, planning to move to Pittsburgh just before kindergarten started, I watched friends with five-year-olds apply for magnet schools and considering private schools. The public schools often had no recess, even for kindergartners. In one case this was because the playground wasn't fenced, and they couldn't trust children to not run into the road or people from the street to not enter the playground. I found it almost as horrifying that the schools that did have recess often had only concrete lots with mulch or rubber mats under the play structures. The preschool our older daughter attended had a good-sized yard and playground, but the yard was perhaps 10 percent grass, 90 percent mulch. Sure, there were weeds, but not enough to withstand daily clover and toe-knocker harvests for the fifty children playing there.

I know I'm sounding like one of those old fogies who sit around saying, "When I was young, we didn't play on playgrounds, we played with weeds! And we learned a lot, by golly!" I know that I sound a bit nuts on the topic. But I really believe that I learned something by playing with plants, and I think most kids today don't have that opportunity, for whatever good or bad reasons. And children who lack access to weeds because they live with "perfect" lawns are missing out.

At the elementary school my daughters attend, the Audubon Society sends an environmental educator to give seasonal outdoor lessons. The kids go into the school courtyard with the Audubon educator, and about once a year they go on a field trip with a more rugged nature walk.

Last year I helped lead this nature walk. For my "training" hike, I met the Audubon's environmental educator, Gabi. We walked the route together beforehand and went over the lesson plan: places caterpillars hide (animal habitats), leaves eaten by caterpillars (simple food chains), and the trail that a caterpillar eats from the inside of the leaf. The caterpillars who consume leaves in this way have a particularly cool title, "leaf miners," which puts me in mind of a little insect with a coal miner's helmet on top, chopping out leaf tissue with a pickaxe.

We were at a park I later came to know well because it contains a beautiful section of the Rachel Carson Trail. The section we walked with the kids was mulched and flat, perhaps a half mile loop, next to a swift-moving stream. The trail was perfect for kids because they love water and it is beautiful and feels wild, but it is also weedy enough that we didn't have to worry about the kids picking anything really rare. Gabi and I decided that if any kids wanted to pick flowers, we'd show them the garlic mustard and let them go at it, as long as they promised to pull it up by the roots.

I was leading a group of five six- and seven-year-olds, including my own daughter. I laid out the preliminary rules. Paramount among them: no touching things without asking, because there was lots of poison ivy. The children all understood about poison ivy, and some of them could identify it. I did my favorite trick of having them smell garlic mustard (say it together now: "Eeew!"), but none wanted to taste it. We found several flowers to identify, and a couple of rolled-up leaves with caterpillars tucked inside. My daughter saw a large frog sitting on a rock in the stream, which made me happy: all frogs are cause for ecological celebration, because worldwide, frog populations are dwindling. And of course, I was thrilled that my child was the one to observe it. (What that really meant is that she was busy looking around for critters instead of listening to me talk, which is what kids should be doing out in nature—tuning the adults out.) Fortunately, no one caught the frog, so I didn't have to worry about keeping them from smothering it with love or enthusiasm.

About halfway around, one of the kids spotted a turtle, right in the middle of the trail. What was that turtle thinking by coming out on the morning of the first-grade field trip? In any case, he (or she) was the perfect animal for us to find, because I was pretty sure we could manage this one without injury to us or the turtle. I picked him up first, and showed the children how to hold the shell so they wouldn't drop him or hurt him, and only one child refused the opportunity. The turtle did what all turtles do in the face of danger, whether the danger is a seven-year-old or an eighteen-wheeler truck: retreated into its shell. Fortunately, this is a successful strategy for dealing with seven-year-olds, and they tired fairly quickly of waiting for him to come out and play. Within a few minutes, they were willing to put him back on the path for the next group to find. I was thrilled that we'd gotten so lucky. If we'd caught the frog instead, it would have been different: frogs pee on their captors as their method of self-defense.

As it turns out, allowing—even encouraging—my group to hold the turtle later caused some dissention in the ranks, because only Gabi and I had let the kids hold the turtle. I think the classroom teacher and some of the other moms were less comfortable with the situation or more empathetic with the turtle, and they told the kids they could look but not touch. Perhaps they were nervous about salmonella, which can be a concern for those handling reptiles. I'm glad my daughter was in my group, because she would have been really mad had she heard that other kids got to hold the turtle but not her. I'd love to know—this would have been a great time for an educational experiment—did the kids who held the turtle care more about turtles afterward?

Further, do kids who pick plantain in their schoolyards care more about plants afterward? I have, on numerous occasions, been in situations where an adult is trying to teach a child to respect nature by warning the child not to touch, not to disturb. Obviously, if an animal's life is at stake, this is completely appropriate. But adults are visual learners, and children still have the audacity to try to use all their senses for learning. How do we know moss is soft when we look at it? Because at least once, usually in childhood, we let ourselves reach down and feel it. A conservation ethic evolves early in a child's life, when the touch of a turtle shell's smooth ridges and plates is still new and surprising. If we don't let the child touch a turtle, will she care about turtles at all?

When we were in Chicago, I was confronted with a similar question. A local naturalist friend and his wife led our family on a hike in a woodland at a time when Virginia bluebells and many other spring wildflowers were in full bloom. Our daughters were two and five at the time, interested in flowers but not particularly interested in academic discussions about them. We were in the habit of letting the girls pick occasional flowers, especially if they were abundant, and the hike began with our usual policy: count first, then pick one if there are many. (If the child learns a bit about proportions, and counting, this is a lovely incidental lesson as well.) This was my grandmother's rule in the North Carolina woods where she lived, and I'd always appreciated how the rule let me love the flowers up close and still taught me to save most of them—nine out of ten at least—for the next hiker, and for future generations.

Within a few hundred yards of this hike, the girls had each picked a handful of flowers, with my permission for each stem. My friend the naturalist, though, was a childless grownup, and to him, a preserve means no picking flowers, and he rebuked the girls for picking them. They looked sadly at my husband and me, and we all realized this was not going to be quite as much fun as we'd hoped.

I agree that every person who comes tromping through the woods can't pick flowers, even child-sized handfuls of them, and expect the flower populations to remain undamaged. Particularly in Chicago, wilderness is so small compared to the vastness of the city that each wilderness area has hikers passing by one another constantly, and we just can't have a standard in which everyone picks a flower.

I've grown enough now myself that I'm not even tempted to pick them. I don't want one for me. I just think we can't expect kids to love nature if the message is "Hands off! You might damage it!" Children explore things, and love things, with their hands. How can you know how beautiful those tiny, perfect blooms are if you can't hold one close to your face to look? How can you know what the petal feels like? Our first reaction, after my friend's rebuke, was to tell the girls they could touch but not pick, but by then my friend was so jumpy that he'd remind them every time they bent down, "Don't pick the flowers!"

As it turned out, our whispered conversation with the children was something like this: "We know there are plenty of flowers, but this is a special place and the rule here is No Picking Flowers. When we leave, we'll find a place where you can pick some." They weren't happy; we weren't happy; I'm not sure anyone was entirely happy. My husband found some logs for the kids to climb on—this seemed to be allowed—and finally rescued the awkward situation a bit. But when we left, we decided not to try another hike with our naturalist friend and the kids, which meant, as it turned out, that this was our last walk together. Why would we want to hire a babysitter so we could go hiking without the girls?

The fact that we can't just go around picking wildflowers all the time makes me appreciate weeds all the more. Children need plantain, and playgrounds, time to explore by themselves, and even guided nature hikes, in the company of trusted adults. But most of all, we just have to give them time and places to be outside, without us setting grownup rules, because that's one place where the term "natural consequences" doesn't mean a gentle form of punishment. Natural consequences mean that if you hold the ladybug too long, she might release some stinky stuff on your hand, and she might die afterward. Natural consequences mean that the dandelion wilts quickly and no longer looks beautiful when you pick it. In a world like that, the ritual for "Momma had a baby and its head popped off" isn't a gruesome tale but just what happens. The plantain momma had some baby seeds, and we pop their heads off, and scatter the seeds to new places. In fact, it isn't even a tragedy; it's just child's play, with weeds.

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  • vilho hyv
    What plant use to be called toeknockers?
    2 years ago

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