What does a crazy hat have to do with gardening? As part of a new Junior Master Gardener virtual course, kids can wrap newspaper on their heads and tape it into a hat, then add decorations to represent water and other plant needs.


Know and Show Sombrero is just one of the lessons from Junior Master Gardener pilot online course for elementary students called Virtual Learn, Grow, Eat & Go. Kids can learn about gardening, nutrition, physical activity and more using "interactive, video-based content," according to the jmgkids.us website.


The international Junior Master Gardener program, in its 20th year, was created and developed at Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, said Lisa Whittlesey, director of the junior gardener program.


Originally, the Junior Master Gardener program evolved when Whittlesey started a horticulture program at a women’s minimal security prison camp, she said, and some women, whose children came for visitation, wanted to garden with their kids.


"We needed to have things that were age-appropriate and fun and engaging and simple enough that we wouldn’t need a lot of supplies," she said.


She then wanted to expand these ideas for a more widespread children’s program.


The Texas Master Gardener Program, also part of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, has some similar components, although the two are separate programs, Whittlesey said.


"I thought it would be kind of cool to have something similar for kids," she said.


It started as a Texas-based program, and "it quickly grew," she said. "Within a year, we had other states contacting us."


The Junior Master Gardener program offers a variety of curricula, with lessons designed to be fun and educational. The in-person Learn, Grow, Eat & Go has been available for about five years. More recently, the online version has been in the works.


"It’s set up to make it really simple so kids could actually do it, or families could do it at home," Whittlesey said.


The virtual lessons and resources are currently free for teachers and their students, as well as parents and others. However, supplies might need to be purchased for some activities. "It’s pretty minimal," Whittlesey said. Items will be "things they probably have around their homes."


In turn, they give feedback to help fine-tune the content.


"We know there may be lessons, based on feedback, that we want to tweak," she said. "So far the feedback has been amazing."


The online version is similar to the in-person Learn, Grow, Eat & Go. It has two lessons per week for 10 weeks, along with other features. Students focus on each of the four components of Learn, Grow, Eat & Go, with lessons ranging from Paper Towel Gardening to Plant Parts We Eat.


Randy Seagraves, a Junior Master Gardener program specialist, explains in a video: In the Learn section, kids will learn why plants are important, what they need and how they provide for our needs. In the Grow section, kids start a garden and then build, maintain and harvest it. In the Eat section, kids sample fresh foods. In the Go section, there are going to be some physical body-boosting and mind-boosting activities.


As of mid-November, about 5,500 students nationwide were signed up for the virtual courses, Whittlesey said.


The overall, in-person program offers a core curriculum, in addition to Learn, Grow, Eat & Go, Wildlife Gardener and Literature in the Garden. There are other curricula for middle school/junior high school ages. Kids can earn various certifications, such as becoming a certified Junior Master Gardener, she said.


In general, the program has been geared toward kids from third grade through eighth grade, but other grades have adapted it for use as well, Whittlesey said. Those participating have been primarily through school-based programs — as well as after-school groups, clubs, summer camps and others, Whittlesey said.


Last school year, students in a garden club at Lagos Elementary School in Manor worked toward becoming certified as Junior Master Gardeners, said Melanie Griffin-Hamlin, a reading interventionist at the school and a co-sponsor of the club. The exuberant kids used rakes and hoes while planting and getting their hands dirty in the soil.


Unfortunately, because of the coronavirus pandemic, they did not get to finish, she said. Nonetheless, the program is "absolutely" worthwhile, Griffin-Hamlin said. "I feel like gardening encompasses everything that we want students to know. We have math, science. We have literacy."


The program is appealing for several reasons, Whittlesey said, including: "Every child has the opportunity to have success in the garden."