How to Introduce Bonsai to Teenagers?

ShadyStump

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So, I work as an academic coach/para/teachers aid at a hybrid online high school in Colorado. All the classes are online, but we do one-on-one in person tutoring, and part of it is planning in person group activities for the students to get out some. Our main demographic is mostly under served impoverished types, and the idea is to get them out experiencing something more than the streets they roam. Last spring I was going to have them plant flowers and herbs to take home with them, but then the quarantines and lock downs happened cancelling it.

We're not completely opened up, and most of our "activities" are virtual and inactive right now, but more people than ever in these communities are planting gardens and getting outdoors because everything was closed for so long. I want to build on that by spinning it into introducing my students to bonsai and/or related interests as another way of encouraging them to see the world they live in a little differently, more creatively. I want to, effectively, use bonsai to get them to see the trees in their neighborhoods differently (we're all familiar with that phenomenon, right) which, theoretically, should get them looking at other things around them differently, and eventually spotting opportunities where they thought there were none.

Problem is, it needs to be relatable to adolescent gang-banger-wannabes, suitable for a 90% virtual experience, and I hardly have a clue what I'm doing with bonsai myself. My first thought was to start out with a weird tree scavenger hunt. Just find a funny looking tree in your neighborhood and post a pic. Winner gets a free school t-shirt or extra credit or whatnot. No clue where to go from there, though.

Any suggestions?
 

BonsaiDTLA

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Take fast sprouting seeds and have them grow a sapling. Identify the difference between horticultural practice and design principles - and teach them that a bonsai cannot be beautiful unless its healthy. Teach them about the different trunk shapes and types and have students look for outdoor trees that represent the different types of trunks. Have students write a story based upon the tree they identified, creatively making up a story about how the tree endured certain natural stresses, fungal diseases, or whatever it is to end up looking like what it does today.
 

Wires_Guy_wires

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I got into growing plants because I wanted to smoke weed for free instead of paying for it. I didn't like the idea of supporting criminals, so I grew my own.
Cannabis is booming in the US, and you can probably get their attention by mentioning it.

"Look kids, see those Colorado dudes making millions a year by doing a little bit of work in April? They plant a seed, and in September or October they have 3-6000 dollar worth of weed in their pocket. Same happens in Colombia, dudes plant some seeds, dudes pick some leafs, do some crude lab work, get millions. Same happens with beer! Farmers plant some seeds, do some work, harvest, and breweries turn it into liquid gold.
Same happens in Japan, dude runs up a mountain, takes a tree down, takes care of it, sells it for 5K after four years.
I'm not telling you you're going to get rich fast, but this stuff works, especially of you're lazy. You basically water once a day, which is hardly working, and sure, you'll have to do some field work in fall and spring for four weeks a year."

Possible example: the kid that did some backyard breeding and produced the tomato every big chain puts on their burger or sammich nowadays. The kid went from zero to millionaire by accident in three years.

That's how I introduced plant biology to my students. I told them that every plant works the same way, and if they could do it in a petri dish, they would be able to do it anywhere, at any time.

Ideas:
A lady I know sold corn kernels, fixtures and lightbulbs for 40 bucks. People were able to grow their own lamps from them. Make sure they're LED though, otherwise they burn down.

A woodworker I know is braiding willow shoots to make organic chairs.

Japanese art in general:
The Japanese are a remarkable people. They like looking at stones, they pay for stones. Why? What makes this art? I think it's because it's an example of how struggles can wear and tear a rock, but that only makes it better.
They pay for decorative deadwood, just like my mom does. Why? Because this too shows that tough love and overcoming stuff thrown at them for years makes them better.
They pay for trees in pots. Why? Because they want to keep nature close, the idea of a quiet mountainside in the middle of a city, a place to be alone and creative.
Now if kids would translate that to where they're from, using stuff like 'fordite' or photographing gnarly beat up trees that exemplify the struggles of where they're from. But there is a beauty in there depending on how you look at it. And that kids; changing how you look at ugly things, might actually make them pretty. If you know how to use that to your advantage, you're not just simply an artist.
What happens to that beat up parking lot bush when you actually take care of it? Show an example of a yamadori progression. Doesn't look bad, right?

I'm not even kidding when I say: call your local art museum/gallery and tell them about your street art project. No matter what background or attitude a teenager has, every single one of them would love for their work to be displayed in a gallery. The gallery will get some much needed revenue from kids+parents+family. It's a win win.
 

ShadyStump

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Thanks for the thoughts, guys. I hadn't thought of selling it to them as an art project, especially for the public. Seemed too hard to sell them on bonsai being an art at all because they don't come from that sort of life most of them, but I might be under estimating my students again.
There's a big concrete planter by the door of where I go to work. I'd to love to put a tree in there, but I'd prefer that to be part of the project.
One way or another, I need to find a way to do it online, and that's what's tripping me up as much as anything.
 
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Michael P

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A long time gardening friend has had one bonsai for 20 years, a bald cypress. His 15 year old son NEVER takes any interest in the landscape or this tree. Suddenly one day a few weeks ago, he looks at the tree and says, "Wow! That's Japanese, right?" Turns out he loves anime, and saw a bonsai in one of the videos that he particularly liked.

Maybe you could find suitable anime, and post links to them for your students? From what little I know, anime sound cool enough to interest these kids. Decades ago, "The Karate Kid" had a similar effect, if short lived.
 

Mycin

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I got into growing plants because I wanted to smoke weed for free instead of paying for it. I didn't like the idea of supporting criminals, so I grew my own.
Cannabis is booming in the US, and you can probably get their attention by mentioning it.

"Look kids, see those Colorado dudes making millions a year by doing a little bit of work in April? They plant a seed, and in September or October they have 3-6000 dollar worth of weed in their pocket. Same happens in Colombia, dudes plant some seeds, dudes pick some leafs, do some crude lab work, get millions. Same happens with beer! Farmers plant some seeds, do some work, harvest, and breweries turn it into liquid gold.
Same happens in Japan, dude runs up a mountain, takes a tree down, takes care of it, sells it for 5K after four years.
I'm not telling you you're going to get rich fast, but this stuff works, especially of you're lazy. You basically water once a day, which is hardly working, and sure, you'll have to do some field work in fall and spring for four weeks a year."

Possible example: the kid that did some backyard breeding and produced the tomato every big chain puts on their burger or sammich nowadays. The kid went from zero to millionaire by accident in three years.

That's how I introduced plant biology to my students. I told them that every plant works the same way, and if they could do it in a petri dish, they would be able to do it anywhere, at any time.

This is 100% the way to do it, assuming that this is appropriate for your audience. Weed is huge in Colorado--as I'm sure you're aware--and the possibility of growing my own would have been the only way to get me into horticulture at that age. Help them learn about and understand the grow cycles of plants, drawing parallels to cannabis where appropriate. Quick growing annual flowers, herbs, etc would be a good first project. Maybe don't mention the guys in Colombia though :D

Bonsai might be a hard sell because of the lengthy timescales involved. It's hard to imagine many teenagers having the patience and foresight to get into something that is done over years, not days & weeks. You're right though, we shouldn't underestimate them from the jump.

Good on you for making a difference, OP. Getting involved in the lives of at-risk youths is such a great way to keep this kids on a positive trajectory. Like planting a tree, you're making the world better for us all
 

Leo in N E Illinois

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I say you are better off pushing gardening, raising food. Bonsai is not something more than a handful out of every 100 students would have any interest in. Hell, if you can get 15 out of 100 interested in gardening. And the future bonsai students are pretty much all going to be a subset of the same ones that are interested in vegetable gardening. Save yourself the heartache, they are not going to "relate" especially if it is compulsory.

A school club, that meets, with voluntary membership, and no penalty for not joining has a small chance of getting going.

I knew a woman who was a full time teacher and ran the middle school bonsai club. A school of over 500 kids, she always had between 7 and 15 student bonsai club members. Don't expect to get much more than that. By the way, Colin Lewis, Ted Mattson, Peter Tea, and several other notable artists donated time for the kids when they were in town doing paid demos and workshops. For example, Colin was in to teach his weekend intensive course, he stayed one extra day to spend 4 hours with the middle school bonsai club. Others from the Milwaukee Bonsai Society help make it all possible.

Do you have a bonsai club nearby? Are you a member of a bonsai club? This is a project that really needs a support network. By yourself, you are not going to have much time or resources.

Members of MBS would donate real bonsai pots, YiXing, or production grade Tokonome pots, to the kids club, we'd donate real tool's, buy wire for them. These are all items over $50 each, and MBS would donate enough for whatever the headcount of the club was at the time. It would be awful expensive to sponsor a bonsai club out of your own pocket alone. This is a project for a group to do. The kids would "earn" the pots and tools and such. I don't know the details. But if they kept a tree going, after a certain amount of time, they would be offered a good pot for the tree. There was a middle school bonsai club toolbox, and the wire supply was communal.
So, do you belong to a bonsai club that could help you with this project?
 

AZbonsai

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Any suggestions?
Do you meet at a brick and mortar school? We do a tree inventory every year on our school grounds. Kids and new staff are amazed we have over a 100 trees on our campus. I was surprised as well. If your campus is inner city maybe do a couple of blocks radius around the school. Identify the tree...approximate age/height. Gauge health of the tree. Create a spread sheet for the kids to put their data in. Identify locations for future trees. See what trees grow in your neighborhood well. Keep planting. Create a map of your trees. Maybe adopt a tree for each kid to take care of. Foster an appreciation for trees and who knows where it will lead.
 

ShadyStump

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@rollwithak, that exact scene is what got me into bonsai as a kid! Grew out of trying to karate my little brother to death, but not cool trees in pots.

And I'm loving the insights from everyone! I was trying to plan a gardening type activity last spring, but covid cancelled it, and a bonsai club would work great for us, but again, we're almost entirely online now.

That's what keeps stopping me up- how do I do this in a virtual environment? Doesn't have to be bonsai directly: bonsai adjacent is fine. Keep it coming! This is really helping me sort it out in my head.
 

AZbonsai

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That's what keeps stopping me up- how do I do this in a virtual environment? Doesn't have to be bonsai directly: bonsai adjacent is fine. Keep it coming! This is really helping me sort it out in my head.

World wide initiative! US leaning in! Might spark some interest. 1 Trillion Trees is the goal.

 

Anthony

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First a love of nature.
MUCH later - Bonsai.
Too many mental problems.

Weed is for the elderly and the pains of age.
How East Indians use it.

Maybe join with the Art Teacher and see landscape.

We have kids from the projects, they seldom get to the
preferential schools. Children of unloving / uncaring paremts.
Mostly accidents, and those parents are unwilling to pay for higher education.
So they float aimlessly.

There is much truth in -
"Bonsai are the playthings of the Rich."
Good Day
Anthony
 

leatherback

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@rollwithak, that exact scene is what got me into bonsai as a kid! Grew out of trying to karate my little brother to death, but not cool trees in pots.
I really should see that movie one day.. So many people seem to have that as their icon!
 

ShadyStump

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First a love of nature.
MUCH later - Bonsai.
Too many mental problems.

Weed is for the elderly and the pains of age.
How East Indians use it.

Maybe join with the Art Teacher and see la

There is much truth in -
"Bonsai are the playthings of the Rich."
Maybe join with the Art Teacher and see landscape.

There is much truth in -
"Bonsai are the playthings of the Rich."

You're right on the money as far as the students I often deal with, but these two lines hit me hard.
Unfortunately, we don't have much of an art program right now, but there's work being done on it. You're right, I should get more involved in that, and my appreciation for landscape architecture is a great way to do it.
And the idea of bonsai being for the rich is ubicuitous, but I feel undeserved. The Chinese who first established the art thousands of years ago, and even the Japanese one hundred years ago, had less resources than the average impoverished American today and found a way to manage it.
Bonsai is for everyone. The only thing you need to be rich in is time, and even that's subjective.
 

zanduh

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If it’s just a demonstration I don’t see harm in it. If you inspire a kid to take a second look at the hobby that’s great! If none of them are thrilled with the concept but think about other things they might like better that’s fine too.

You could segway from this subject to ask if people in the class have interests that similarly take a lot of time or patience.
 

Kadebe

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Problem is, it needs to be relatable to adolescent gang-banger-wannabes, suitable for a 90% virtual experience, and I hardly have a clue what I'm doing with bonsai myself. My first thought was to start out with a weird tree scavenger hunt. Just find a funny looking tree in your neighborhood and post a pic. Winner gets a free school t-shirt or extra credit or whatnot. No clue where to go from there, though.
Any suggestions?
You can start a practical project with a fast growing plant, like a weeping willow.
Give them each a piece of weeping willow and explain what they have to do to get it to root... once they have a nice root, explain the next steps... putting it in substrates..... Give them choices about different substrates, feeding.... They have to choose which technique to use. In time each student brings back his plant to show how the plant evolved, and explain what they have done to get to this result, what they have learned themselves and what their next steps will be.
 

leatherback

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You can start a practical project with a fast growing plant, like a weeping willow.
Give them each a piece of weeping willow and explain what they have to do to get it to root... once they have a nice root, explain the next steps... putting it in substrates..... Give them choices about different substrates, feeding.... They have to choose which technique to use. In time each student brings back his plant to show how the plant evolved, and explain what they have done to get to this result, what they have learned themselves and what their next steps will be.
I like the idea, but.. Also prone to failure, which is not really stimulating to them I think?
Not sure whether there is budget, but a cheap nursery plant for each to work on? A lot of things can be done without specific tools and wires?
 

Anthony

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@ShadyStump ,

historically, the Chinese that grew Bonsai, were well off
retired, on plentiful government pensions.
Scholars who often lived in the Southern Mountains, finding
excellent trees for free.

Aside, only love works. I have the experience of raising two cousins
of uncaring parents. Both boys are in research science in the
UK today.
Good Day
Anthony
 

sorce

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Put it on ticktok! Lol!

we don't have much of an art program

I have been in contact with some potters in West Virginia who started a non-profit to help art programs. I don't know of they are working out of state, but perhaps they can help you begin one? Ideas? Hfclay.com. Washington Street Studios. Art Works for Good, Inc. Phil and Dennis.

Best!

Sorce
 

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