Discovery Preschool teacher Marci Driver, an avid home gardener, thought her students could learn a lot from growing a garden of their own. Now in its second year, the Discovery Preschool garden at Capital Park has yielded some tasty vegetables and some equally beneficial lessons for the preschool students.
Driver first had the idea for the garden after discovering that many of her students were unaware of the origins of their food.
“At lunch time we would talk about food and most kids weren’t aware that their turkey in their sandwich came from an actual turkey, or that their roast beef sandwich came from a cow.” Driver said, “ I was just so intrigued by that, that children really were not aware of where their food had come from, so I started thinking, 'How can we make a connection between where our food comes from without it being just this idea that children this age are not able to make that connection?'”
Having a conversation alone wasn’t enough, the complicated system of where our food comes from is not an easy thing to explain, especially to 3- and 4-year-olds.
“We can talk about it, but there really isn’t a physical or a visual connection, so I thought in my head, “Well, a garden is a great place, and Juneau is a great place to have a garden.””
Before any real gardening could be done, Driver and Discovery Preschool had to deal with one slight obstacle.
“ We don’t have any green space at our school, we just have the building.” Driver said.
An idea formed to try to use space at Capital Park, located a block from the school.
“Blue (Shibler) contacted Parks and Rec and asked about using the space near the fence in Capital Park for a couple planter boxes.”
The project was approved, and some parents from a former preschool class organized and paid for the planter boxes to be built. They are long wooden boxes that don’t look out of place in the park. Instead of being full of flowers or usual park shrubs, though, the planters are full of heads of leafy greens, celery, carrots and radishes.
With the location figured out, it wasn’t hard to get everything else in order.
“Rick Bellagh and Bob Bellagh donated the seeds and the starters to us,” Driver said. The starters and seeds are from the Shelter Island farm. “And then Bob Bellagh has been coordinating the garden project this year. So he came and did the planting and organizing the garden with the students. And unfortunately we don’t have a water source at Capital Park, so he brings water in his truck when it’s not raining and we need to water it.”
Luckily, Juneau waters the plants itself most of the time.
The students started most of the plants inside, before transplanting them in the Capital Park planters. The students are now pretty well versed in gardening.
Caitlin Sanders said gardening is “planting stuff” and that her favorite part is “picking stuff.”
Aidan Temple elaborated on the gardening process.
“You have to plant the seeds,” he said. “You put soil and water in.”
“You just have to let it grow.” Aidan said. Then “you pick ‘em out and you wash ‘em off and eat them.”
The students were excited about what they are growing. The list includes lettuce, chard, radishes, celery, carrots and nasturtium.
“We took a vote in the classroom (to decide what to grow) and we talked about the foods, first of all, that we could grow.” Driver said, “There were lots of requests for watermelon — I think that was probably the No. 1 request. We talked about the things that could grow in Juneau’s climate, and after we talked about what we could grow here, then the kids voted on what they wanted to eat.”
Now is an exciting time for the students and their garden. Harvest time.
“We are growing lettuce — which started as starts in April inside — we started harvesting that last week, so the students started eating that last week.” Driver said, “We had enough for kids to have some at snack and at lunch. And it’s really sweet to see kids just having a leaf of lettuce, and nibbling on it at lunch — that’s not something that you normally see at lunchtime in my classroom. And then they all got to take home a bag of maybe five or six leaves of lettuce.
Some of the students and families immediately made use of their fresh greens, while others are waiting.
Gianni Ameduri is looking forward to eating his lettuce.
“I did not eat it yet,” Gianni said, “I’m gonna eat it when I get home.”
He has already tasted it at school and has determined that “It was yummy.”
“I eat it for dinner,” said Tierney McDowell with a grin.
He and other students feel it’s better than vegetables they didn’t grow, though they couldn’t place why.
“I had one parent tell me how, the next morning, their son woke up and asked for his lettuce and a cheese sandwich. So he had made his own little sandwich with just lettuce and cheese, and that’s what he had for lunch the next day also.”
Driver suspects the children prefer it because they grew it, not to mention the freshness and conditions under which the vegetables were grown.
“I think for some kids it introduces even trying lettuce, for example, there are lots of kids that I’ve never seen eat lettuce before. I think often times it’s just that they aren’t interested in trying it. I think the planting the seeds, watering them, weeding the garden, nurturing and taking care of the garden — it’s an investment and they feel ownership over it, so when it produces something, they want it, they’re interested and intrigued and curious about picking it,” Driver said.
“First of all, it’s not very often that children get to pick and eat their own food — and children like to pick things, so they get to pick it, and naturally they want to try it, they’re curious about it, and some of the kids have never tried it before, though some have. And some of them really like it and are surprised by it, and ask for it.” She said.
Beyond the taste of satisfaction at the fruits (or vegetables) of their labor, Driver feels there is a real difference to fresh grown foods.
“I think the other thing that’s interesting, that I found after I started gardening, is that vegetables taste very different fresh from the garden, than in the store, lettuce, carrots, radishes, zucchini. That’s another way to introducing children to trying new things, getting a new take on vegetables is that they really do taste quite different and fresh when they haven’t been shipped up from the lower 48.”
Still, not every child will become a vegetable fan.
“I have one student who wouldn’t try it. He wouldn’t eat green things, is what he said.”
But just because they aren’t ready to take the plunge and eat their greens doesn’t mean the students aren’t all getting something out of the whole gardening experience.
“If I went to a store and bought some lettuce and brought it into the classroom and took it out of the bag and rinsed it off and passed it out for snack, 99 percent of the children would balk at eating it. But when we pick it in the garden, put it in the basket, bring it back to the classroom, wash it off — 90 percent of the kids are willing to at least try it and half the kids will really enjoy it and ask for more. And 100 percent of the kids are proud to take it home to their family — it’s an accomplishment.” Driver said.
Driver sees it as a way for students to be more aware about their food and their choices.
“I think it gives them choices in their food. It exposes them to making choices about their food.”
Aside from learning about where their food comes from, learning to appreciate and enjoy healthy foods and learning about responsibility and choices, Shibley mentioned that children get to play in the dirt, and they really like that.
• Contact Neighbors editor Melissa Griffiths at 523-2272 or at email@example.com.