Just past “The Place Where We Woke Up a Snapping Turtle” and “Secret Minnow Cove,” Sofi pointed to some Plantain on the side of the pathway and said “isn’t this the plant that you use to put on cuts and scratches?” I said, “yes, this is Plantain.” She shrugged her shoulders and cheerfully responded “I don’t remember the names I just know what they do.”
She, like many children her age and younger, relates to things on a visual and sensorial level. It is not until somewhere between the 12th to 14th year that a child develops the “adult” need to name and organize things. This unique way that children have of relating to their environment is the key to teaching them about herbs at an early age. Herbs to a child are not coriander, motherwort or marjoram – they are color, movement and magic. Although some children do enjoy the process of meeting each plant and learning its “name,” their primary attachment to the plant will be through their senses.
One of a child’s first experiences with herbs should be observation and exploration: a batch of cheddar cheese muffins; a small patch of garden filled with chocolate, pineapple and orange mint plants; and lavender oil rubbed on the feet at night before bed. These experiences awaken in the child the urge to know more. Scientific studies show that of all the senses – smell is the one that embeds itself in the memory the deepest. A child whose early years are filled with the scents of herbs is also building strong memory pathways for more sophisticated knowledge and use of those herbs in their later years. Some additional ideas for herbal experiences include nature walks, using herbs as bouquets, using herbs for healing and using fresh herbs in cooking. I’ve shared some child-friendly herbal recipes on the website HerbnKids.
Another of the child’s first experience with herbs should be through stories. Peter Cottontail enjoys a cup of chamomile tea instead of blackberries and milk when he becomes ill; Rapunzel is named after a garden herb that her mother craves while she is pregnant, and I am quite sure the three little bears had cinnamon in that porridge. As a parent you can also make up your own stories about the herbs. The book series Red Clover: Herbal Fairy-tales was created after I sat with my children at my friend’s farm one day and made up stories about the Red Clover, Chamomile and Queen Anne’s Lace that filled the homestead. Children also enjoy creating their own fables and tales about plants. In one story by Sofi, white violets grow by “Bubble Brook” (a puddle created when it rains) so the fairies can come and get bubbles that enable them to breathe under water. As a first step to introducing herbs into storytime you can also add herbs into an existing story. As you have probably already noted – there was actually no mention of cinnamon porridge in the original tale of the Three Bears.
A child’s first herbal lesson should emphasize their connection with the plant through movement. According to Rudolph Steiner, the father of Waldorf education, movement is one of the thirteen senses he identifies in people. Although they may seem to be statically rooted into the ground, plants are full of motion. A daily walk along a familiar path for a week can bring to light the growth motion of the quickly spreading wild mint. A visit to a meadow on a sunny day can illustrate the attraction that moves echinacea flowers to reach for the sun. Observation of a patch of chicory reveals a summer and autumn surprise that was hiding in springtime when many of the other flowers were bursting out to enjoy the warmth. The appearance of strawberries in the summer and apples in the autumn reveal what the white flowers of spring and summer were telling us. All of these lessons – seasonal, daily, weather and growth movement – provide the cornerstone to a child’s herbal wisdom later in life.
The child’s second herbal lesson should emphasize their connection to the plant through color and shape. Colors of plants take on new meaning when children learn how bright red hawthorn berries heal the heart and vibrant red hibiscus flowers help the blood stay healthy. A child learns to look deeper when they learn that it is actually the gnarled and dark buried root of the echinacea plant that heals them from the winter flu and not the beautiful purple flowers. A child will naturally learn to identify leaf shapes, flower colors and stem features when they learn that Queen Anne’s Lace, the mother of our modern carrot, can sometimes be mistaken for water hemlock – a similar looking poisonous plant. To gently introduce these concepts to the child you can take a sketch pad and some colored pencils on your nature walks. For very small children you can also integrate plant features into circle time. Have children stand quietly while you show them how they can be an herb – their head can be the flowers, their chest and arms the leaves and their torso and legs the roots. Then, to solidify their direct physical connection with the plant, share with them the wonder of how flowers actually heal headaches, many leaves are good for the lungs and many roots are good for the digestive system. Depending on the age of the child you can substitute the words head, breathing and tummy.
When a child collects herbs they should be taught that all collected herbs must be used in some way – either through healing, cooking or art. If one does not have a use for the herb then it is preferable to draw an herb rather than take it with you. An additional benefit of drawing the herb is that through the process of drawing the child is drawn into a relationship with the plant – they intimately observe how it is shaped, what color it is and how it grows.
When collecting herbs it is also important for the parent to note when the herb is “ready” and what part should be harvested. The best season to harvest is just when flower buds are forming but just before they open. The best time of day to harvest is in the morning when the dew has dried off the leaves and there is no moisture left on the plant but yet it is early enough that the sun has not dispersed many of the volatile oils for the day. When harvesting one should leave at least half of the plant and should snip the stem with a sharp knife or shears. Pulling at the plant with the hands will damage the root system. If there are multiple plants in the area or you are harvesting roots then you should leave at least half of the plant group intact.
Once a child reaches the age of twelve and above herbal lessons can graduate to more sophisticated observation, organization and preserving methods and each child should be given a field guide. What may amaze you is that they will already know how to use the guide to fulfill their need to research, name and categorize new things they are discovering around them. A field guide organizes things by movement (seasonal and growth), shape and color – identifying factors that the child is already deeply connected to if the child’s first lessons were done in the ways I’ve described above.
Look for the continuation of this series in the next three issues of Rhythm of the Home.
Kristie Karima Burns, MH, ND is a Master Herbalist and Naturopathic Doctor who enjoys teaching all ages about healing. She teaches classes for adults through The Avicenna Institute which gives adults the opportunity to earn certification in a number of natural healing practices and start a new career or enhance and existing one. Students at the institute include doctors, dentists, herbalists, reflexologists, teachers, mothers and homeschoolers. The Instiute is recognized by a number of International organizations. Kristie also offers classes for children as part of her Earthschooling Lifetime Member program, or through individual classes at: Herb n Kids.com.