During mealtime in a childcare program, caregivers can encourage conversation and nutrition awareness with the children by talking about foods. Where do carrots and corn come from? you may ask as the family-style meal is served.
One child may answer From a can! Another child guesses From the grocery store! A third child volunteers From the freezer. Depending on where you live, none of the children may mention a garden or farm.
With grocery stores and restaurants on nearly every corner, many children have little chance to see how food is grown. A small gardening project can be a meaningful addition to your food and nutrition curriculum and an excellent way to introduce children to new foods.
Learning from Gardening
Children who water and weed a garden often gain new perspectives and an appreciation for the vegetables that appear on their plates. The other materials you use to teach nutrition, like the play foods in the dramatic play area and the foods in picture books, become more real to children after gardening.
There are other benefits, too. Gardening teaches responsibility, cooperation, and a connection to nature. Gardening also stimulates curiosity and develops early language, math, and science skills.
Your garden need not be large or elaborate to be successful. A small, manageable garden can be as simple as a windowsill or container garden or a few square feet of garden space. The main requirements are sunlight, well-drained soil, water, and enthusiasm!
Plants to Grow
Vegetables are good garden plants for beginners because they grow quickly and are edible. Children typically want to grow vegetables they know about, so consider the varieties that are produced and eaten in your area. You can introduce a new vegetable or two among the familiar ones.
Some vegetables have characteristics that lend themselves particularly well to childrens gardening projects. For example, beans have large seeds that are easy for small fingers to grasp, while radishes grow extremely quickly. Tomatoes, cucumbers, and zucchini produce large quantities.
For a very small windowsill garden, herbs are a good choice, especially those with pungent aromas, like mint and basil. Some plants require more space than others (zucchini, squash, and pumpkin vines can grow quite large); so consider that as you plan the garden with the children.
To emphasize the garden-to-kitchen concept, consider a theme inspired by a particular kind of food. Since many children like pizza, you could grow tomatoes, peppers, onions, and basil together, and then prepare a pizza topped with the childrens harvest. Other possible themes include a salad garden, a soup garden, or a sandwich garden.
Tasks for Children
Young children have short attention spans, so make sure you have all materials readily available to keep them busy and active in the garden. Two gardening tasks that young children particularly enjoy are digging in dirt and watering. Child-sized tools make gardening easier for small hands. Spoons, measuring cups, buckets and other common instruments also can serve as gardening tools.
You may want to seek advice and enlist help from co-workers, parents, and community volunteers. People who enjoy gardening are often eager to share their passion for growing plants. Another source of assistance is your local Cooperative Extension horticulturalist. Look for the listing in your phone book under local or state government.
Gardening with young children can be rewarding, but also challenging. Gardening is, by definition, a messy activity. Families would probably appreciate a note that describes the upcoming activity and suggests appropriate clothing. Families may also be willing to donate time, expertise, or supplies to support your garden.
When the garden begins to produce, it is time to help children make the garden-to-kitchen connection. Bring recipes and recipe books to show the children, and ask for favorite recipes from their families. Plan how your harvest will be used in the kitchen.
Children will be amazed at the different possibilities for their produce. The realization that self-grown tomatoes can be eaten by themselves, on sandwiches, in salads, in spaghetti and pizza sauce, or in soup makes a big nutritional impression! Be sure to involve children in the process of food preparation, such as giving them the opportunity to measure, pour, mix, and perform other tasks.
Like most activities involving young children, there are safety concerns with gardening. Since very young children experience the world through their mouths, hands-on gardening should be postponed until they are past that developmental stage.
In preparation for gardening projects and as part of your overall safety curriculum, teach toddlers and preschoolers not to put plant parts from outdoors--including leaves, bark, seeds, stems, mushrooms, nuts, or berries--in their mouths. Some gardening tools have rough handles and sharp points, so check all of your supplies for potential hazards. If you are gardening with children outdoors, take appropriate actions to protect them from harmful sun exposure.
Most vegetable plants are not toxic, but three to avoid when gardening with children are mushrooms, chili peppers, and rhubarb. Some mushrooms are edible, but many others are extremely toxic, and it is difficult to tell the difference. It is best to avoid growing them with young children, who might later mistake a toxic mushroom in their yard for one of the safe ones they grew in their class.
Hot peppers can produce painful burns and blisters on the hands and mouth, and their bright colors are attractive to young children; so they are not good choices.
Rhubarb leaves are highly toxic (even though the stems are edible). Two other vegetable plants to be careful with are potatoes and tomatoes. The sprouts and leaves of potatoes and the leaves and stems of tomato plants are poisonous when consumed in large amounts. For information on toxic plants, consult your local Cooperative Extension horticulturalist or Poison Control Center.
Gardening can be a tremendous asset to your nutrition curriculum. A garden, no matter how small, gives children an appreciation for how a tiny seed grows into a delicious, healthy vegetable. Next time you are looking for hands-on and fun ways to teach children about where food comes, remember gardening!
Parent Educator, Asheville, NC, City Schools Preschool
Contact your local extension service, in the telephone book listed under your state or countys name, for local gardening help and information
Tips for Gardening with Kids, Texas A & M University,
Planting a Garden with Your Child, Denver County Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners, Colorado State University, www.colostate.edu/Depts/CoopExt/4DMG/Children/plangard.htm
Winter Gardening Activities for Kids, University of Vermont Extension, pss.uvm.edu/ppp/articles/wintrfun.htm
Gardening Fun for Kids, Denver County Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners, Colorado State University, www.colostate.edu/Depts/CoopExt/4DMG/Children/fun.htm
A Childs First Garden, Yates County, Cornell Cooperative Extension, counties.cce.cornell.edu/yates/mg%20articles/mg4.4.01.htm
17 Plants for a Childrens Garden, Rebeccas Garden, www.rebeccasgarden.com/articles/Kid_s_Club/General/208-p.html/4DMG/Children/ingarden.htm
Developmentally Appropriate Gardening with Young Children, White & Hutchinson Leisure and Learning Group, www.whitehutchinson.com/children/articles/gardening.shtml