Inspiring Herbal Inquiries

By Eve Pranis

What better motivator for student investigations than plants that feel cool, smell great, and can turn mere tomatoes into pizza sauce?

Consider ways in which you can use herbs in the classroom to get students observing, comparing, and designing investigations. Here are a few suggestions to prompt your thinking.

Note: It's important to check for allergies before inviting students to rub, taste, or otherwise touch herbs. Also remind students that although the herbs used in the classroom may be safe, they should not experiment with plants they find elsewhere until checking with a responsible adult!

  • Early in a unit, have the class generate a list of all of the ways they can think of that we use herbs. Revisit and revise the list as research and investigations generate new information. Or have students create concept maps with "herbs" at the center, and then create new concept maps at the end of a unit.
  • Encourage students to use their senses to explore a variety of herb plants, noting similarities and differences, then recording what they know, observe, and wonder about the plants. Guide them in setting up investigations or research projects to help answer their questions.
  • Provide or have students bring in a variety of dried herbs and spices. Challenge them to carefully observe the contents, and try to infer what part of the plant each ingredient comes from. Alternatively, bring in a dried herbs and spices and the corresponding plants and seeds. Have students try to match the plants with their dried forms and seeds.
  • Have students explore and compare a mixture of herb and nonherb potted plants. Ask them to organize the plants into groups with similar attributes, then let other classmates guess how the groups were categorized. Discuss what attributes seem to distinguish herbs from other plants, and invite students to imagine and brainstorm why these plants may have evolved with such strong aromas and flavors.
  • Provide a variety of herb plants, then challenge students to figure out the "best" way to extract the smell/flavor from a plant. You might want to provide a variety of materials to give students ideas for "extracting," such as a toaster oven, hot plate, boiling water, frying pan, crushing and cutting utensils, and so on.
  • Challenge students to experiment to test "the best" herb or combinations for particular purposes: for instance, the best spaghetti sauce herb, best salad dressing combo, or the best herb for fragrant bath oil. Require students to back up their choices with data rather than just stating their own opinions.
  • Using a school garden, botanic garden, or other herb garden, develop a scavenger hunt that focuses students' attention on qualities of herbs. Here are some sample clues: find an herb that smells like a mint, might taste good in spaghetti, or might repel fleas.
  • Invite students to become herbal sleuths, looking for evidence of herbs in grocery stores, household products, pharmacies, and so on. Consider experimenting with your own herbal creations. (One first grade class made calendula oil to use on chapped hands. They grew calendulas indoors, then picked the flowers and left them submerged in olive oil on a windowsill. After six weeks, they shook, strained, and bottled the mixture.

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