So far in our series on the senses, we’ve covered how playgrounds feel, sound and smell. But as we know, children often discover the world around them first by touching an object and then—gasp!—by putting it in their mouths to taste. This next installment offers some answers to the question: What does your playground taste like?
Admittedly, incorporating the senses of touch, sound, smell and sight is a much simpler task. There is a whole range of experiences children are “allowed” to have with their eyes, ears, fingers, toes and noses that wouldn’t be appropriate for tasting. Soil has a particular smell, a fragrance of damp and new life that appeals to most people. We understand instinctively that soil smells how it tastes and tastes how it smells. But that doesn’t mean I recommend eating it by the handful.
The best way to address taste is through plant life. To turn your playground into a true outdoor classroom, consider the real-life learning lab a vegetable garden can present.
Not just a garden but an outdoor classroom
A vegetable plot offers tasting experiments galore. Different flavors can be found in each stage of the food story: planting, sprouting, growing, harvesting and cooking. Onions taste one way when picked fresh from the earth but taste entirely different when caramelized in butter. You wouldn’t eat pumpkin seeds fresh from the gourd, but they become spicy, salty or sweet when roasted and tossed with chili powder, sea salt or sugar. Snap peas—a late spring and early summer crop—grow quickly, their sweet-smelling flowers and climbing vines giving way to flavorful beans that can be harvested before school lets out for the summer.
Our five senses are so closely tied to one another that the lessons a vegetable garden teaches aren’t limited to taste. With the nubby, waxy surfaces and colorfully striated skins, pumpkins, squash and gourds offer incredible tactile experiences. A tomato plant is so interesting: it has a soft, distinct, sticky texture to its leaves and stems; an earthy, pungent fragrance; and visually there’s the explosion of color—the green, the orange, the red—from its fruits, flowers, leaves and even the tiny hairs the sprout along the stalks.
And taste doesn’t just have to do with the gardens we grow. Did you know you can eat marigold and dandelion heads? Have you ever sampled the end of a honeysuckle bloom? Who hasn’t savored the earthy tanginess of a long stem of grass?
Important considerations for your garden
It’s worth noting that growing seasons vary by region, and unless yours is a year-round school, seeds that are planted and sprout in the spring will ripen in the summer, when students are away from school. But late spring/early summer or late fall/early winter crops present plenty of opportunities for tasting. Even herbs planted in little pots—perennials such as thyme, sage, spearmint, peppermint and lemon balm—are easy to maintain and nurture year after year.
It’s also important to be clear and conscious about what plants go into your playground. Many plants with perfectly edible fruits are poisonous when their stalks, stems or leaves are consumed. The leaves of a tomato plant are poisonous, as is the potato plant. And you’d never encourage a child to eat a wild mushroom or any kind of fungus; all it takes is one bite of the wrong kind.
Still, the benefits of experimenting with tastes—combined with all the other sensory experiences of your playground—outweigh the risks. Consider that with every new taste your students experience, you’re helping them create a memory. Each time they taste fresh spearmint or eat a tomato fresh off the vine, their taste and fragrance memories will transport them back to your school—creating not just a memory, but the reliving of an experience.