Cross Curriculum, Multi-Grade Teaching Tips for Homeschooling
When the weather gets colder, leaves start changing colors and we find frost on our pumpkins, we know that fall is in the air. To celebrate the changing of the seasons, Horizon Charter Schools’ Contract Programs Department normally schedules school trips to local pumpkin farms. However, due to COVID-19, these types of group activities have been put on hold, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of exciting things to do with and learn from this fall crop on your own.
This popular fall crop is great to eat and use for decorations. It’s also an excellent learning tool. It may be used for geography (learn where they come from), science (study how they are grown and how to tell whether a pumpkin is a fruit or a vegetable), social studies (discover what different cultures do with the produce and why people carve them and use them as decorations), math (differentiate and document sizes and shapes or learn to measure ingredients), home economics (cook pumpkin dishes), and arts and crafts (decorates and useful tools). Parent-teachers may tailor lessons for any age or grade level. Thus, pumpkins make a perfect learning tool for families.
A Brief History of Pumpkins
Pumpkins are originally from Central American and spread to North America. Botanists have found seeds from related plants in Mexico that date back to 7000 B.C.! Wow! Indigenous North Americans have grown the crop for thousands of years. Before they cultivated beans and corn, they grew and ate pumpkins and their seeds. This was centuries prior to the Pilgrims coming to America. In fact, the indigenous people introduced the crop to the Pilgrims, teaching them how to grow and prepare the plant. If there were foods made from pumpkin at the first Thanksgiving in 1621, the Native Americans most likely provided them.
However, despite their origin, most pumpkins are not grown in the United States or even North America. Today, they are grown on every continent except Antarctica and rarely exported to other countries. Surprisingly, according to Thomson Reuters, the top five pumpkin-producing countries today are:
- India (which was the top producer until the 1990s)
- United States
The University of Illinois reports that the top producing states are Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and California, but 90-95% of processed pumpkin in the United States come from Illinois. Further, over 1.5 billion pounds are produced in the US each year, with 80% of the crop available in October.
Where Does the Word Pumpkin Come From?
French explorer Jacques Cartier (1491-1557) is largely credited with naming both Canada and the pumpkin while exploring the St. Lawrence region of North America. He reportedly misunderstood the Iroquois word kanata (meaning village or settlement) as referring to the entire region, which he called Canada. He also described finding gros melons (the French way of saying “big melons”) during his travels. In Greek, pepon is the word for “large melons.” This was translated into English as “pompions,” and evolved by Americans into the word “pumpkin.” The first literary reference to the word appeared in Charles Perrault’s 1697 story, “Cendrillon,” which was adapted by the Brother’s Grimm and others as the fairy tale “Cinderella.”
Is a Pumpkin a Fruit or a Vegetable?
This is probably the most frequently asked pumpkin question. Technically, a pumpkin is a fruit because it’s the product of a seed-bearing, flowering plant; whereas vegetables are the edible part of plants that have roots, bulbs, tubers, and the like — plants such as potatoes and carrots. However, because pumpkins are less sweet and more savory than fruits like apples and grapes, people tend to consider them a vegetable.
Pumpkins are actually a winter squash, part of the Cucurbitacae — or gourd — family that includes cucumbers, zucchini and even melons. Like a watermelon, they are mostly water. In fact, this gourd is actually 90% water! That’s a lot of water when you consider how big pumpkins get.
How Many Types of Pumpkins Are There?
When people think about pumpkins, they usually envision large, round, orange squash carved into a Jack O’Lantern or mashed into a pie or even carrying Cinderella off to a ball. But, did you know there are actually dozens of types of pumpkins and not all of them are orange? Popular opinion counts the types of pumpkins at 30-45, but one website lists as many as 73 types. They come in all shapes (round, flat, oblong), sizes (3″ Jack Be Little to the world-record 2,624.6 pound), and colors (orange, white, green, variegated and even blue). They can be used for everything from soups and stews to decorations and lanterns to bowls and mats.
What Parts of a Pumpkin Can You Eat?
Almost all of them! Yep, with the exception of the stem, every single part of some varieties of pumpkins is edible. Here are a few fun ideas for cooking various parts of a pumpkin:
- The plant’s shoots and leaves: Some cultures chop up the plant’s shoots and leaves and cook them into an omelet while others make them into a side dish.
- The flower that forms before the fruit: The flower may be dipped in egg and friend until crispy, stuffed, or made into quesadillas.
- The meat inside the skin: Try a delicious Burmese Pumpkin Stew, soup or bake it into your favorite pie.
- The skin itself: Make the shell into Pumpkin Crisps or Chips, or hollow out and roast the pumpkin shell and fill with stir fried vegetables and rice or a soup or stew.
- The seeds: Bake pumpkin seeds and toss them into other dishes, or just eat them by themselves as a snack.
Pumpkins have a good amount of vitamins A, C and potassium, so they make for some healthy eating. For more fun cooking ideas, try an internet search or look through your favorite cookbooks. Be sure to check ingredients for potential food allergies!
Pumpkins Are a Food and Much More
Pumpkin pie is an American favorite at any Thanksgiving feast. Yet, this custard pie’s origin is thought to be the early colonists, not the first Thanksgiving. However, it was very different than what we call pumpkin pie today. The colonists sliced off the top of the fruit, removed the seeds, then filled the hollowed-out shell with milk, spices and honey. The “pie” was then baked in the hot ashes of a dying fire until done.
As was their way, Native Americans used the entire plant for food as well as furnishings. They roasted long strips of pumpkin on an open fire and ate them. They also roasted and ate the pumpkin seeds. In addition to using it for food, they dried the skins and wove them into mats. By using all parts of the plant, they insured there was no waste and all of their needs were met.
The Farmers’ Almanac mentions that pumpkins were once considered a remedy for freckles and snakebites; however, we now know that to be untrue. Although there are other uses for the fruit and its products — including decorations — pumpkin is mostly used as a food.
Decorate with Pumpkins
There are so many fun ways to use this squash as decorations! Large, small, orange, white, green, painted, carved — the decorating possibilities are endless.
- Take small gourds and set them on your mantle, nestle them into arrangements or wreaths, or hollow them out and plant a succulent inside.
- Stack or layer medium to large pumpkins to create a topiary, painted, wrapped in fabric, or just set on a bookshelf or step.
- And don’t forget the traditional cornucopia or Jack O’Lantern!
- Check out 30 Fun Craft Ideas from HGTV to get your imagination going.
History of the Jack O’Lantern
According to The History Channel, “The practice of decorating jack-o’-lanterns originated in Ireland, where large turnips and potatoes served as early canvasses. Actually, the name, jack-o’-lantern, comes from an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack.” In the folk tale, after he died, Stingy Jack put a piece of coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the earth with it ever since.
“In Ireland and Scotland, people began to make their own versions of Jack’s lanterns by carving scary faces into turnips or potatoes and placing them into windows or near doors to frighten away Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits,” The History Channel notes. “In England, large beets are used. Immigrants from these countries brought the jack-o’-lantern tradition with them when they came to the United States. They soon found that pumpkins, a fruit native to America, make perfect jack-o’-lanterns.”
Making Learning Fun
Whether you choose to use the pumpkin to teach your students about history and different cultures, as a lesson on nutrition, for math and home economics, or for arts and crafts, this fall favorite fruit is an awesome teaching tool. It may be used to teach different ages and grades a variety of subjects. Younger homeschool children might paint their squash, count them, measure ingredients and help make a meal, side dish or dessert, while older independent study and distance learning students learn about history and other cultures and use that information for a written and/or oral report. Whatever lessons you choose, remember to make it fun for everyone.