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Nurturing Curiosity: Early Childhood Garden Education with Youth Grow

in our own words youth grow

Early Experiences in the Garden

Many of the elementary schools that Youth Grow works with also offer early childhood and Kindergarten readiness programs, through Ready, Set, Go!, for students and their families. For these students, ranging from a few months old to pre-K, Youth Grow offers short lessons covering age-appropriate themes of food and gardening, and afterschool programming for families.

“I see it as developing a small sense of comfort and curiosity and helping kids get comfortable outside,” Betsy Lattig, Youth Grow Lead Educator, said of early childhood garden education. “This can get the spark started really early.”

Even very simple activities, such as walking through the garden, or smelling and touching different plants, can create a strong foundation of comfort in the garden that students will then be ready to build on throughout elementary school and beyond. “The goal is getting kids more exposed to foods they’ll see growing up, from the whole process of seed to table,” Kelley Smith, Youth Grow Educator, said. These kinds of exposures at a young age can make a huge difference.  

Even though lessons cover basic topics in nature and gardening, Kelley said that people might be surprised at how engaged and curious young students can be, and at their abilities to draw connections between things and express themselves. “These kids are so smart,” she said.

Lessons for early childhood students often involve hands-on activities that engage the senses. For some of the youngest students, this may involve smelling, touching, and tasting different plants that the educator brings in. This kind of activity might be adapted for slightly older students, at the pre-K level, by including toy models of some plants, asking the students to sort things by size, or comparing the colors of other objects they know to different vegetables. Even at a young age, this exploration of different plants often prompts students to talk about foods they love and eat at home. 

Beginning these practices of noticing and sharing sets students up for doing these things at a more complex level as they grow. For example, a few years later, students may plant the seeds they sorted by size when they were younger, and learn about the process of germination through the beans that they played with. Talking about which foods they like will lead into more developed conversations about culture and cooking traditions. 

In working together from pre-K all the way through the end of elementary school, educators and students develop trust and relationships, and educators observe students developing stronger connections with their gardens by the year. “Students are excited to continue, especially when they’re working with the same person throughout the years,” Kelley said. 

The continuity of the growing process also helps to keep students engaged and curious. “They get excited to see a seed grow into something bigger that they eventually get to taste,” Kelley said.


Connecting With Families

Often, early childhood education includes a higher level of family involvement than for older students. As children become acquainted with the garden, families become acquainted with the school communities that they will be part of for years to come. When working with students of every age level, Youth Grow works to incorporate family input and serve as an avenue to connect families to local food systems and resources, including the school garden, school food pantries, CSA programs, and Home Gardens.

Youth Grow and Home Gardens have collaborated to offer free virtual programming, with take-home planting kits and gardening workshops, for families with early childhood students. Past projects have included growing strawberries and cilantro in container gardens. The workshops covered how to plant in containers, the importance of companion planting, and the benefits of gardening with young children, which include defining motor skills, improving physical health through nutrition and movement, having fun together as a family, and discovering the calm and joy that can be experienced through nature. Home Gardens then introduces their program and tells families how to sign up.

Youth Grow also gives early childhood students take-home kits related to daytime activities and lessons. For example, in class, students might learn about worms, connecting to their experiences with the creatures out on the playground. Then, they receive a take-home kit, complete with a craft to make a worm puppet, a song to sing with their families, and a game to play together. Such activities connect students’ experiences in the garden with their play outside the classroom, and connect families to what their students are doing in school.

 “This is getting kids invested in and connected to nature and their habitats,” Betsy said. “They can start seeing nature as a part of their lives, even if they live in the city.”

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