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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Julia’s Garden reopens on an urban farm oasis

In this guest post from Katherine Parlette, you’ll learn about Julia’s Garden, a Montessori program in the heart of Travis Heights where young people will have the opportunity to grow and thrive right alongside the garden plants they tend.

Welcome to Julia’s Garden! Or, for some of you, welcome back. This year, with the construction of our first Children’s House, we are concentrating on a nature-based Montessori curriculum. The home space we will be teaching the classes from is an urban farmland conveniently located in South Central Austin. It’s a place where city kids can benefit from getting their hands dirty, seeing the process of where and how their food is grown, and helping harvest, prepare, and serve it in their very own “house.”

Children who are coming into their third and fourth years of life are in their sensitive periods for reading and writing. Many programs offer a chance to explore nature, exposure to languages, and music and/or arts and crafts activities. Although all of these things are important for the preschooler and are also part of our curriculum, what sets us apart is our AMI-trained Guides, who have the time, resources, and expertise to sit down with your three-year-old and make sure that lessons are offered at the exact point in the child’s development when he or she is ready to receive it. It’s this accountability for academic learning that makes us different from many other home-based programs.

Julia’s Garden classes will be held in the sacred space of a private home, which, through years of teaching in various environments, we have found to be young children’s preferred kind of space for absorbing knowledge. Traditional school buildings in commercial settings are not ideal places for small children to spend their formative years. Vinyl flooring, fluorescent lights, and limited outside time all go against the child’s natural tendencies to learn through their senses and through movement. Plastic toys, unbreakable dishes, and padding send the message that children are clumsy and not to be trusted.

In contrast, AMI Montessori environments are lovingly prepared with materials that are pleasing to touch and to see. The Children’s House, or “Casa de Bambini,” as Dr. Maria Montessori called her first classroom, is a true home for children where they can work, play, and take ownership of their environment. Having access to materials made from nature, like wood and wool, show respect for young children and in turn help them develop respect for and knowledge about nature. Items made of ceramic and glass help children learn balance, patience, and responsibility. The result of this approach is a confident and capable child.

In our backyard, where nature leads the way, children are able to develop concrete language and fine motor skills literally from the ground up. In a garden classroom, touch, taste, smell, and sound allow them to fully take in the world around them. Harvesting their own ingredients teaches respect for food, and learning the process by which it arrives at our table helps avoid future battles around nutrition and eating disorders in the teenage years.

Gardening also builds important life and survival skills that will assist in your child’s development all the way into her adult years. In the fall, the children will have the opportunity to harvest the summer crop and prepare snacks made from organic ingredients. Simultaneously, they will be preparing the winter garden. We will talk about which vegetables and fruits grow best in our climate in the winter months and choose our favorites as a class. Then we will plant them together and continue to water them and weed the garden in order to truly see how an organic garden grows. Composting is also a big part of our daily regime: all food we do not consume goes into the compost bin so that children see the importance of recycling and that nothing goes to waste.

Julia’s Garden is a community-based class program. We encourage parents to help us in the garden and form adult friendships. Montessori is a family, and the mixed ages give the children opportunities to be teachers as well as students. We bring children into our Primary classroom before age 3 so that they can remain with the same teacher for a longer stretch of time. Having fewer transitions to work through during this tender time means more space for growing and learning in the environment. It also means that there are no delays in the child’s education from toileting training setbacks. By starting children at school in the midst of their process, we can help them to become successful at independent toileting well before their third birthday.

There’s a lot “growing on” at Julia’s Garden in 2014! Come and see for yourself or visit our website. We hope to see you soon!

Katherine Parlette, AMI M.Ed.

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

Teachers are like gardeners

Sir Ken Robinson is a hero to many of us in the alternative education community. His talk at the 2006 TED conference on how the standard school system undermines creativity has been viewed more than 8 million times, more than any other video on the popular TED site. His funny and inspiring 2010 follow-up TED talk, calling for a revolution to replace the industrial model of education with an agricultural one, has been emailed and shared on Facebook countless times and shows up on lists of recommended links nearly everywhere I look as I research child-centered schooling. It's hard not to love this guy.

I recently came across a brief video clip of a Sir Ken presentation in Florida that was new to me. In it he makes an analogy that builds upon his proposed agricultural paradigm: teachers as gardeners. It struck me as wonderful and apt not just because I'm a gardener myself (as are many of the teachers and students at schools featured on this site) but also because it shows so much respect for the inherent life in our children. Take a look and listen for a couple of minutes:

Another thing I like about this analogy is that it supports my own strong belief that there are many “correct” ways to educate children (or to pave the way for children to educate themselves). Just as gardeners can get superb, fully realized tomatoes through various methods (staked or unstaked, in containers or double-dug square-foot plots or raised beds—even hanging upside-down), you can see superb, fully realized human beings emerging from schools that employ various methods and models, so long as they nurture the distinct creative life of each child.

If you want to meet some terrific gardeners—both literal and metaphorical—visit the independent schools profiled in the Alt Ed Austin School Directory. You just might find a place where your kid will put down roots, blossom, and flourish.