“Come look at the beautiful garden I planted,” I tell 25 first graders on a sunny morning. Pointing at oversized photos of tomato, pumpkin, strawberry, and milkweed flowers on the ground, I continue. “All of my flowers need to be pollinated in order for my garden to grow the food I want to eat. I’m going to turn you all into bees so that you can help!”

After a few more instructions, I give the “ready, set, go!” and the swarm of kids runs off down the playing field. Each “bee” carries one piece of colored-paper-pollen to the other end, and deposits it on a matching set of flower photos. There are no winners. There are no losers. No one is “it.” But the kids are burning off a lot of excess energy by running around like bees. After a full minute of sprinting, the learning begins.

I gather the kids at the far end and check their work. Each type of flower has a unique color of pollen, so I can make sure that they brought pumpkin pollen to the pumpkin flower, and not to the tomato flower. There are a few odd colors mixed in here and there, but mostly the kids match the pollen to the correct flowers.

This is one of the most important concepts I will repeat like a broken record throughout our field trip season: pollination only works when pollen from one flower gets transferred to another flower of the same species. In reality there are exceptions for self-pollination within the same individual flower, but the main point is the same. Pollen from a different species is just dust.

Another idea that I want to cement into their little brains, is what pollination does. “Pollination helps plants grow,” sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard to my ears. Perhaps it’s because of my graduate professor who kept asking “how” during a discussion on how trees grow, or perhaps it’s because I know this answer hides a lack of true understanding.

Obviously I don’t expect first graders to understand complex biological processes, but I’ve also encountered plenty of teens and adults who think pollination “helps plants grow.” It’s not entirely wrong if you stretch the words far enough, but I’m pretty sure that the image going through their heads is pollen raining down like fertilizer on a growing plant.

Pollen isn’t fertilizer, though. Pollen contains the male reproductive cells of a plant. Pollination is when those male cells get transferred to the female part of the flower. If all goes well, the pollen then fertilizes the ovule and produces a seed. I don’t tell the first graders, of course, but this is sex in the garden.

If my graduate professor started asking “how,” we’d be here for weeks discussing the intricacies of pollination, fertilization, and seed production. But at least this answer is more specific than “it helps plants grow.”

For plants, the goal of pollination is to produce seeds. Often, those seeds are encased in something yummy — pumpkins, tomatoes, strawberries, or apples, for example. So, pollination does help plants grow — but only NEW plants, sprouting from those seeds. It also helps fruit grow, and my pie-filled belly.

To illustrate this point with the first graders, I show photos of the foods that our young “bees” helped create: a pumpkin pie, a strawberry, and a bottle of ketchup. Not many first graders think that eating a ripe tomato is very exciting, but a cheer goes up for ketchup. The milkweed is a little different. For that I share a photo of a monarch butterfly and a caterpillar. Pollination is important to humans, but it’s essential to the rest of nature as well.

Several more games later, when I’m sure that the kids understand these concepts — at least for today — I take them into the exhibit hall. Our main Pollinator Power exhibit has plenty of fun ways to discover more about bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, flies, beetles, and hummingbirds. From a light-up matching game; to a marble drop that uses puck-like pieces of “pollen” to create blueberries and primrose seeds; and a food counter where kids can serve up their favorite pollinator-dependent food, the colorful exhibit inspires exploration.

Of course, no such adult-friendly exhibit can compete with our brand new Curiosity Center kids’ area. We brought in the professionals for this one, and the resulting exhibit is durable, washable, beautiful, and FUN. Right out of the gate, kids run for the spiral staircase hidden in the center of a giant tree. Some get distracted by the “periscope” camera inside the tree that affords them a bird’s-eye view of their friends. Others opt for the true bird’s-eye view, and climb up the tree and out into the giant bird nest. A big red button calls to them like a siren, and one good smack releases our flying squirrel, Luna, to go soaring across the room on her zip line.

It’s no accident that our field trips are filled with games and play time. I want the kids to understand pollination, of course, but I’m also hoping that the seeds we plant today will grow into a lifelong belief that learning can be fun.

(Copyright © 2019 APG Media)

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