Thursday, July 07, 2016

It's Working!

We've been trying to grow plants, and food plants in particular, since I started teaching at Woodland Park, but it was watching Jamie Oliver's 2010 TED talk (the video is there if you want to watch) in which he called on educators to take the lead in teaching children about food and nutrition that I began dreaming of a robust year-round gardening program. Not having ever been a gardener myself and with limited space, most of our efforts were of the one-off, everyone-share-a-single-radish variety, although by the time we moved to our current location in Fremont, we did have a small, tidy seasonal garden that doubled as a mud pit during the colder months.

So when our beautiful new green house was completed last June, with it's surrounding dedicated space for growing things, it felt like a dream had been realized. And then it began to dawn on me that I had no idea, really, what to do with it. It more or less sat fallow last summer, then as fall rolled around some of our parent gardeners began to experiment. All I could think of to do with the kids was to plant seeds and water plants so that's what we did, but I didn't feel like I had a handle on how to really step up to Oliver's challenge. As the days began to get longer, the parent-gardeners began to include me in their planning, asking me lots of questions about what and how, which I mostly turned back on them until one day I realized that if this was going to work, I was going to have to become an avid gardener myself.

So I began to spend more and more time out there, both before and after school, getting my hands dirty, experiencing the joy of seeing my little baby plants grow into big plants, blossom, then fruit. Occasionally, I would bring groups of children to the green house, which is separated from the rest of the school and only accessible to the kids as a kind of field trip. I found myself tense as I watched the children, quite by accident, trample my seedlings, drown them, uproot them, and generally love them to death. The budding gardener in me was aghast even as the teacher in me understood that this is how children need to explore things. I found myself doing what I hate to do, which is boss the kids around about the plants. Then one afternoon as I was re-planting a flat of lettuce seeds to make up for the one we'd lost earlier in the day to an eager "micro-green" eater, it hit me that the goal wasn't a gardening program as much as a farming program.

We've long had a small garden in the center of our playground, to which we've added a pair of good-sized planting boxes against the side of the building. For most of the year, very little of interest grows there. Then in the spring, the pea vines, berries and other things blossom, which iss exciting, although no matter how vigilant we adults are, most of the "fruit" is harvested by the children far before it is ripe. I can't tell you how often I've found our entire crop of strawberries clutched in a single busy hand as a bouquet. I don't think we've ever seen a red raspberry. It was clear the children were drawn to the things we were growing, but their need to explore made it almost impossible to actually produce any food. But now, I realized, with a small farm at our disposal, we could actually grow most of the food in more protected place, a sanctuary if you will, then, when it was ready to be harvested, we could transplant it into the playground garden where the kids could eat to their heart's content. And I could relax, knowing that there was more where that came from.

It might not sound like much, but it was an epiphany for me: it was a way to balance the instincts of a teacher with those of a gardener.

Yes, we still have some snap peas growing on the playground, but we have a lot more growing on the farm. There is some lettuce, kale, herbs, pole beans, nasturtiums and other things on the playground, but we have a lot more growing on the farm. We've discovered that we can grow cucumbers in pots, so each day I've been carrying one to the playground for the kids to harvest and share. Same goes for tomatoes. We're also hoping we'll find the same is true for our other nightshades like bell peppers and eggplant. The green house is our farm, with the playground garden serving as our metaphorical green grocer -- except now it's pick-it-yourself.

Right now we have an abundance of lettuce and kale and we need to clear the "shelves" to make room for more. The kids are grazing all day long, but they haven't made much of a dent one mouthful at a time, so yesterday we set up a "salad bar," providing bowls, forks, scissors and knives, along with a little apple juice to serve as dressing. A couple weeks ago I wrote about the popularity of our DIY ice cream social: well the salad bar was every bit as popular. It made my heart sing to watch two, three, four, five, and six-year-olds assembling, then devouring salads of their own creation, boasting about the flavor, sharing with their friends, even making salads for one another.

As Oliver said in the video, "If kids don't know what their food is, they won't eat it." Well these kids know their chives from their parsley, their lettuce from their kale, and their peas from their beans. And this is because they've been living with it, playing with it, and tending to it.

It's working! It's working! I'm giddy! And we're just getting started. My hope is that we can create such a bounty that it will carrying us through the fall and into winter. I'm prepared for a couple dead months, but not yet resigned to it: something will grow in that green house, and when spring rolls around we'll be ready for it. It's working!

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1 comment:

Mel said...

The salad bar is such a great idea. My daughter (2 1/2) loves to pick and eat things from the garden, but if the same vegetables are on her plate at dinner time, she declares them "yucky" and won't touch them!!