GrandPlay – Jan. 2015, Children’s Museum of Denver

~ By Sarah Brenkert, M.S.Ed, Director of Education ~

A Winter Garden
Even in sunny Colorado, we get our share of gray, blustery winter days, and with them, long hours spent inside. We start to yearn for the warmth and light and new life of spring – making this month the perfect time to nudge spring along a little and do some indoor winter gardening. Bulbs, in particular, make terrific indoor planting projects with young children, and because they grow so quickly, you and your little ones can enjoy watching them sprout and bloom in just a few short weeks.

Paper whites (a type of narcissus) are perfect for this purpose. The bulbs don’t need to be chilled prior to planting, and they grow well in water, so you don’t even need soil. Here is a guide to a fun and easy Paper white Garden you and your little ones can create together!

  1. Find a container (about 4-8 inches deep) that has no drainage holes. Empty glass jars (like the ones from spaghetti sauce) work beautifully, and they allow children to see the growth of the roots – building science knowledge.
  2. Fill the jar or container with about 4 inches of clean gravel, small stones or marbles.
  3. Place your paper white bulbs, pointed end up, on top of the stone layer. One or two bulbs per jar work well; it’s okay if they’re squeezed in a bit snugly.
  4. Pour in a few more stones to fill in any gaps and cover the bulbs up to their shoulders. The pointed tips should still be showing.
  5. Add water so that it just reaches the base of the bulbs. (Allowing the entire bulb to sit in water could cause it to rot.)
  6. The bulbs don’t need light at this point and they prefer to be kept on the cool side, at about 65 degrees.
  7. Check your bulbs daily to see if they need more water.
  8. When you see roots developing, move the container to a sunny window.
  9. Once the plants bloom, they will last longer if moved out of direct sunlight, to a cool spot with indirect light.

Once the bulbs sprout, they grow so quickly that children can measure the leaves and stems daily. To make a measuring stick, stop by your local home supply store and ask for a few wooden stir sticks from the paint department. Use hot glue (or wrap packing tape or duct tape around the neck of the jar) to attach the stir stick; it should be standing up high. This is where you will mark the growth of the leaves and stems.

To begin, use a marker to note the starting date and to draw a line level with the bulb’s top.
When the first growing tip is about a half inch high, have your child mark its tallest point with a line of colored pencil. Older children can measure the new growth with a ruler and keep track of its height in centimeters or inches. Repeat the measuring activity every two to three days until the bulb blossoms.
When the plants have flowered, they have reached their full height, and can sometimes get a bit top-heavy. You can use ribbon or twine to tie the stems and leaves to the stir stick, using it as a support for your paper white.

A wonderful read-aloud to go along with this activity is Paperwhite, by Nancy Elizabeth Wallace. Wallace’s cut paper collages are full of whimsy and warmth, and the story follows a young bunny who plants paper whites  and eagerly watches their progress.

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