The secret is in the soil


Amy Milliron is an educator with a master’s degree in elementary education and curriculum and instruction who has combined her teaching experience and farming experience to create Hills of Milk and Honey—An Educational Farm. Children and adults who experience the farm participate in hands-on workshops, camps, and tours related to regenerative agriculture practices that focus on soil health and the growth of nutrient-dense food.

Imagine a child as young as three experiencing life lessons about health and wellness, the life cycle, food systems, and how to interact with others as well as create self-care routines that will last a lifetime. Now picture this young child being offered a chance to participate in hands-on learning opportunities where getting dirty on a daily basis is considered a sign of a great day at play while learning along the way. Does the busyness of our daily lives get in the way of providing our children with enough of these opportunities? Would children benefit from a chance to truly connect with the earth and learn from the patterns and cycles of life even at a very young age?


They sure would, and here’s why. Nature, if we pay very close attention, provides great examples of healthy rhythms and patterns to follow. The most noticeable example is seen in the passing of each season. On a farm, it is common for the majority of the prepping and sowing work to be done in the spring, the maintenance of the farm during the summer, and the harvest in the fall. Winter is typically a time for rest and preparation for the following growing season. There is ample time for hard work, as well as a dedicated time for rest within the year. If we choose to follow nature’s example, we can lead by example for our children. The pattern doesn’t need to mimic that of a farmer, but creating a pattern that sets the stage for hard work being a normal expectation in life, as well as taking time for rest, will benefit us all.

When we seek out opportunities for our children of all ages to literally get their hands dirty and dig in the soil, hunt for worms, plant a garden, or care for an animal, we are providing another layer of opportunity for our children to feel grounded and connected with the earth. There is the added benefit that activities like these get us all outside, together, breathing in fresh air, noticing butterflies, bees, and other pollinators around us going about their cycles of work and rest. It may prompt us to journal our reflections as we make notice of what is happening all around us.

With our world being inundated with screens of all kinds, there is the potential to get out of the practice of awareness of our surroundings. Noticing a mama bird taking a worm back to a nest may prompt a child to recognize and be grateful for all the people who care for him in his own life. It may further inspire ideas of sharing that appreciation through a phone call, a card, or a gift. And, it all starts with getting outside and digging in the dirt.

There is an even deeper level of connection available to children when they are given the chance to learn the importance of what is actually happening under their feet. The soil-food web is responsible for everything that grows above the ground. And, when humans properly manage their land to care for the soil-food web, carbon is captured and utilized in a way that benefits all living things, and the microbes under our feet can be left undisturbed so they can share valuable nutrients with other living things underground. This is a concept that even young children can grasp when given the opportunity to see first-hand what the difference is between healthy soil and non-healthy soil.


Can you imagine a child growing up with knowledge about soil health? This changes everything. These children will grow up seeking out farmers who practice regenerative agriculture and support them with their business. They will maybe even grow some or all of their own food. These children will be able to vote with their dollars by visiting farms, farmer’s markets, and companies that support locally grown, sustainable food. Best of all, their knowledge will be able to expand, and they may seek jobs and college degrees in areas that support a sustainable food system in the future. Then, the cycle can continue by these children growing up and raising children that know regenerative agriculture as a way of life.

Parents have many choices nowadays when it comes to extra-curricular activities, camps, and ways for children to spend their free time. Building in dedicated time to connect with the living world will benefit the entire family, create opportunities to bond while learning something new, and perhaps allow for a newfound appreciation for the nature. Seeking opportunities for children to learn about life cycles, the food system, and how everything in our natural world works together is as simple as digging in the dirt.


Hills of Milk and Honey is an educational farm located in Dripping Springs, Texas, that offers camps, classes, and tours to connect children and adults with the earth and learn from the cycles that nature teaches us daily, if we dedicate some time to truly be aware of our surroundings and learn. Right now, Hills of Milk and Honey is in great need of an air-conditioned classroom to allow summer campers and visitors a place to cool off and take part in lessons indoors for periods of time when it’s most hot outside. There is a Kickstarter Campaign running through May 15, 2018, seeking funding support to put this classroom in place right away. Our campers this summer, including those participating in our camp week dedicated to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, will be incredibly grateful for your financial support. And to register your children for summer camp, please visit

Amy Milliron


When a trowel and a wooden spoon are just what the doctor ordered

NutritionEd_Wholesome Generation-2.jpg

From Austin to New York, parents are putting a nutrition curriculum, healthy cooking lessons, and time spent in vegetable gardens at or near the top of the list of things they want their kids to learn in school, and many alternative and public schools, as well as government programs and nonprofits, are filling that need.

NutritionEd_old school Home Ec book.jpg

I wanted to look at the variety of ways students are getting important nutrition information, and I can tell you one thing: This is not your mother’s Experiences in Homemaking class from the 1950s, nor is it my Home Ec class from the 1970s. It’s much tastier!

Our alt ed community has long been active in emphasizing holistic learning, including healthy eating and gardening in daily school routines. For example, last year the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine awarded Austin’s Integrity Academy a “golden carrot” for its commitment to serving plant-based, organic meals. In the short run, commitment to students’ health means more energy and attention in the classroom, but in the long run it also means less risk of disease in adulthood. At Integrity Academy, kids spend a lot of time nurturing plants in the garden and learning to eat mindfully, enjoying the peas, squash, beans,and other crops they’ve grown themselves.

NutritionEd_Wholesome Generation-1.jpg

Another Austin school dedicated to “building community through the power of food” is Wholesome Generation. The Reggio Emilia curriculum at Wholesome Generation serves low-income families and encourages kids to join in all the activities around meal preparation: “Let them be part of the gardening. Part of the shopping. Part of the prepping and slicing and dicing. Get them confident in the kitchen.”

In Texas, alternative schools led the way in bringing nutrition education and cooking into the curriculum, but now AISD is making big strides as well. With a Good Food Purchasing Program that includes sustainability, animal welfare, fair farm labor, and nutrition in its considerations when sourcing food, AISD is improving the quality of breakfasts and lunches served to students. Many of the veggies in those meals now come from the Garden to Café program, started last year at six Austin-area schools where kids can now plant, harvest, and eat their own greens. Another source of yummy, local food for Austin schools is Johnson’s Backyard Garden.

Nearby, in San Antonio, the Culinary Health Education for Families (CHEF) program, launched this year with funding from the Goldsbury Foundation and supported by the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio, is getting serious about children’s health. The program is setting up teaching kitchens for students at the YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs, and even the San Antonio Botanical Garden, as well as partnering with local public schools.

Across the continent, in New York City, Yadira Garcia is among many professional chefs working in the innovative Wellness in the Schools program, a growing nonprofit that now reaches about 50,000 students in New York, New Jersey, California, and Florida. The chefs teach cooking classes and nutrition during the day and create special events involving parents after school. In a recent New York Times article, Garcia noted that the key is for students to make the meals themselves, so they “turn into the best salespeople,” encouraging their friends to try the kale chips, black beans, and salads they’ve created.

A for-profit New York City enterprise called Butterbeans is run by two moms who were looking for a way to bring healthy food and wellness education to students in a playful way. In addition to providing lunches to about 15 schools in the city, Butterbeans also offers camps where kids can learn to grow and cook their own food while exploring urban gardens around the city.

NutritionEd_Dr Yum team member Noah and sweet potato.jpg

In Virginia, where I live, a project with a great name, the Dr. Yum Project, is all about teaching preschoolers and parents to get off to a healthy start with a curriculum that makes cooking and learning about food an adventure. The nonprofit, which is the brainchild of pediatrician Nimali Fernando, also features a “meal maker machine” to help busy families solve the perpetual problem of what’s for dinner with healthy recipes to prepare together.

Okay, now I’m hungry. Time to look for some carrots and blueberries to replace those oreos that are whispering my name . . .

If you’re interested in the topic of kids, health, and food, you might want to take a look at these articles, blog posts, and other resources:

Shelley Sperry

Farming with young children

It is a pleasure to welcome Katherine Patton as Alt Ed Austin’s newest guest writer. Katherine not only directs and teaches at The Joyful Garden preschool but also is an accomplished urban farmer who conducts Urban Farm Camps for both kids and adults. Here she shares the rationale behind her agricultural work with the very young as well as some tried-and-true tips for parents and others who want to grow things with kids.

The Why

I’ll be honest: I started integrating farming activities into my preschool program because of my own passion for being outdoors and growing things. To me, it has always made sense to structure my work with young children (aged eighteen months to three years) around what interests me most. Being outside, growing and tending plants and animals, and turning the end results (fruits, vegetables, honey, eggs) into delicious food on the table are hobbies that have become integral to my life and livelihood. Sharing them with the children I teach and care for was just a natural for me, in terms of interest (mine and theirs), setting (outdoors), and results (beautiful feasts for the senses; the hands, eyes, ears, nose, and taste buds can all enjoy the process of raising our plants & animals).

It’s only recently, about a year after actively integrating farming activities into our daily routines, that I have researched and weighed all the benefits of doing so. It turns out that farming (or growing and caring, as I think of it) is beneficial for children from the youngest ages, for so many reasons! Gardening and caring for our chickens support early childhood development by:

  • providing a setting for active/experiential learning—sensorial work, in the Montessori lexicon
  • giving children opportunities to practice social skills, such as verbal communication and cooperation—social/emotional work
  • supporting healthy eating and food choices—self-care
  • introducing principles of science, such as botany and biology
  • reinforcing preliteracy and prenumeracy by providing endless opportunities for naming and counting

All that is wonderful, but to me, it’s all about the daily experiences with the children. No moment is more positive, more filled with potential, than the moment each morning when I push open the farm gate and walk through it with my young charges. Pip the dog runs ahead to check around the chicken pens. The children and I straggle behind, taking in the berry and herb beds, sometimes finding flowers, leaves, and fruit to pick, smell, and taste. A rooster’s crow or the approach of one of the cats, purring and begging to be petted, might stop us in our tracks. One is an occasion to clap our hands over our ears, the other to stop and gently touch soft feline fur.

We eventually reach the shed, from which I can extract the huge chicken feed container and several small sand pails. Children grab scoops and fill the pails with chicken feed. They practice their social skills and conflict resolution, working out who should use which scoop. Fine and gross motor skills are strengthened. Resilience gets a workout when someone is disappointed by the scoop that he or she ends up with. I might count the number of scoops going into the pail. Soon pails are full and scoops go back into the container. Children observe while I dump the feed into the feeders and the chickens chow down.

When we tire of observing—sometimes quite a while later—we check for eggs. Many times there are some that we can count and carry, sometimes none are waiting for us. Our next stop is the garden, where we check for ripe vegetables for our brunch table. Very often, undersized/underripe fruits and vegetables are picked prematurely. It’s all a part of learning in the garden. Over time, the children learn that tomatoes and berries are not ready until they are richly, darkly colored. The proof is in the tasting! Cucumbers and summer squash can be either too small and hard or too large and seedy. They experience the range over time during our indoor work time, when we wash and slice the garden’s bounty for brunch-time consumption. Sometimes the garden’s offerings make it onto the table; sometimes not.

When we sit to eat our mid-morning meal, not every child likes, or will even taste, our harvest. But I know that each exposure to a new food increases the chance that a child will try and enjoy it at some point. If it takes, as some experts say, ten exposures to a new food before a young child will actually taste it (some say fifteen exposures), I know that each child with me that day has seen that food twice—once in the garden, and once at the table. They see me tasting and enjoying it, and with any luck, at least one of their peers will be enjoying it also. In this simple way, we are laying the foundation for healthy eating habits.

The How

Here are a few of my tips for growing and caring with the very young:

Focus on the process, rather than the product. A toddler might focus on scooping soil, to the exclusion of getting to the next steps of planting seeds to sprout, and then watering, and so on. Provide the materials and tools that are capturing the child’s focus right now. You can always seed separate starting trays while he or she is occupied with all that scooping.

Start small. One to three pots filled with dirt alone might be enough for a young child to experience (touch, smell, even taste) as a start. Start some seeds in other pots, set up and out of the way; your kiddo will likely be delighted to help you harvest when they bear fruit.

Keep it safe. Examine the environment for sharp edges, biting insects and spiders, and other hazards before offering it to a young child. Practice organic cultivation rather than using chemical pest deterrents and fertilizers. Research livestock-borne disease risk before allowing your child to interact with animals, and keep a close eye on all child-animal interactions. Chickens and other farmyard animals can frighten or injure a young child through just their natural behaviors (pecking, quickly taking flight, crowing). Teach your child to eat only those plants and fruits that you have approved for consumption. A good mechanism for enforcing this, which has nothing to do with asking permission, is to make a habit of washing everything before tasting. This gives the grownup a chance to review what will be consumed in advance of dining.

Grow plants that are easy and that you like. If you hate tomatoes, don’t grow them! Grow food that you will enjoy sharing with your child. If there is a vegetable that you know she or he loves, plant some seeds. Once your kid enjoys picking that favorite from the garden and eating it, it’s a short stroll to the next pot, where a soon-to-be-favorite is growing.

Katherine Patton