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Garden with Insight Kurtz-Fernhout Software
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Garden with Insight v1.0 Help: Introduction for parents and kids

No matter what the age, ability, or knowledge of your child, both of you will benefit from using the computer together. You can help each other learn new things about plants, soil, and the weather.

Three levels

This simulation has three major levels. At the first level, your child uses tools to interact with the garden just as he or she would in a real garden. At the second level, your child looks at pictures that show somewhat more abstract things about the weather, soil and plants in your garden. At the third level, your child uses numbers to make graphs and study trends in the garden. The intent of this structure is to lead children to a progressively more abstract understanding of agriculture, science, and nature. If your child is interested in mostly one level, or if your child is unable to grasp some of the more abstract ideas in the simulation, don't worry. In time, maybe months or even years later, the seeds planted by playing at one level may germinate and grow, giving your child a way to climb to the next level.

Different kids learn in different ways

Howard Gardner's book Multiple Intelligences lists these areas of intelligence: Musical, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Logical-Mathematical, Spatial, Interpersonal (social), Intrapersonal (self-awareness), and Linguistic. Some people think there could be many more types of intelligence or finer subdivisions. Every child progresses in these different areas at different rates and ultimately, to different degrees. This progress is affected by natural ability, interest, opportunity, effort, past experience, and guidance.

Depending on your child's current learning style, he or she may learn best by looking at pictures, by holding a lump of soil, by reading, by dancing around pretending to be a plant, by growing a plant, by talking, by drawing a picture, by being lectured to, or by writing a story. A computer program like this one can only be part of a larger educational experience and may not be the best way for any specific child to learn about science and gardening.

It is clear from the work done by Papert, Balestri and others that playing in a world where you can make things often helps children who might otherwise never learn science make sense of it and see the value of scientific knowledge. Following these goals, the Garden with Insight garden simulator is an open-ended microworld that does not strive to teach any one insight or force children to learn any one thing. Different children will have different approaches to using this program, and will gain different things from using it. This is good; people with different strengths and weaknesses make for a more interesting (and probably better) world.

What follows are our recommendations for activities you can do with different ages of children, though the age levels are very flexible and depend on your child.

Ages seven to twelve

We've had kids as young as seven playing with the tools, planting plants, watering the soil, harvesting, and having a great time -- with adult supervision. Young children will not be able to use this program by themselves. There are just too many complicated things to understand and too many little buttons to click on (and too many big words!). However, if you direct them in using the tools, and maybe show them some of the other pictures, you can help them learn without letting them get stuck.

With younger kids you will probably want to grow the plants optimally all the time, because the influence of the weather on plant growth is not immediately obvious and might be hard to understand. The ideas that you plant seeds, watch them grow, water, fertilize, use mulch, and harvest fruits are all good ideas for younger kids to understand and appreciate. Some of the kids we tested the program with knew all about compost and used a soil patch as a compost pile right away!

You can also help younger kids to make new plants and grow them, perhaps letting them make some decisions like how big to make the leaves or what color to make the flowers. We find that younger kids just love the magic wand, and want to do all sorts of crazy magical things. You can also help your child draw a picture in a paint program (perhaps of your own outdoor garden or something imaginary) and use that picture as the garden backdrop.

Ages twelve to fifteen

Older kids, starting at about twelve, can start to understand some of the more abstract concepts such as the soil profile and why a plant is growing or not growing. You can start to show them what happens when you turn off optimal temperature or optimal water uptake, and then what happens if you don't water the soil. You can show them how the soil profile changes when the soil patch has plants in it because the water is taken out by the plants.

It's pretty hard in this version of Garden with Insight for anyone to make completely new plants, but it's not difficult to copy a plant and make some small changes that can help kids learn some things about botany and plant growth. Kids ages twelve to fifteen might make a copy of a plant and change its leaves, or change its internode length (to make it shorter), or change its harvest pictures. They can also make changes to the tools by adding their own custom tool pictures, although this takes a bit of work.

Ages fifteen to college

Junior-high and high-school kids can really start to use the program's three levels. Frankly, we had really hoped teenagers would be able to use everything in the program, but the models we adapted are so complicated that we haven't had the time to explain them well yet. But motivated teenagers should be able to run some experiments and try out different "what if" ideas. They can try growing the same plant in several soils, or try growing different numbers of plants in soil patches to see how they compete, or look at any number of interesting questions. If they are interested in botany, soil science, chemistry, or mathematics, they can start to poke around in the model section of the help system with soil science and plant growth textbooks at hand. They might be interested in helping younger kids use the program or in showing you what they have learned.

College and above

Young adults in college or graduate school may also learn from playing with this simulation and reading the more technical parts of the help system. Feel free to ignore the very technical mathematical explanation of the models until such time as you or your child feels interested in the mathematics of garden simulation (or until we explain it better!). Frankly, we (the designers) find the mathematical models difficult to understand ourselves. So don't fret if you or your child can't follow the math without a huge effort (it's taken us years). You don't need to understand how the simulation is implemented to use it to gain some insight into plants, soil, and weather.

A note about accuracy

While the soil and weather simulation in this version is fairly accurate, the plant growth model is less so. So don't be surprised if the carrots you and your child grow weigh too much or your tomatoes weigh too little. The general trends of growth are fairly accurate; the precise amounts of growth are not. We are endeavoring to make the simulation as accurate as possible. Nonetheless you should remind your children that they can't believe everything the computer tells them (see A cautionary note about simulations), and that they should verify knowledge gained from simulation by doing hands-on experiments in a real garden, as well as by consulting books on gardening and science.

We would like your feedback so we can improve the program. If you encounter unusual difficulties or problems using some part of the software, please send us email at

Also see the Introduction for teachers and students.

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Updated: March 10, 1999. Questions/comments on site to
Copyright © 1998, 1999 Paul D. Fernhout & Cynthia F. Kurtz.