Friday, January 17, 2014

Planting Seeds

Learn + Grow Youth Programs Grow Healthy Families

Ew! Slugs?!”
 “I’ll take the whole bucket and eat them!”
“They taste like green beans.”
“They’re so good!”

     These are just some of the comments that blindfolded campers shout to one another as they take turns eating “slugs” at the Nutrition station of the Junior Master Gardener day camp.  The “slugs” are actually green beans.
     Amethyst Rayford, the nutrition counselor, leads them in the nutrition “Fear Factor” activity.  She emphasizes the importance   of the activity, “The kids try foods they wouldn’t normally. It gets them excited about eating healthy foods, and a lot of them find out they like foods they never thought they would.” She laughs, “Though blindfolding them does make it a little easier.”
     “When we first would ask them what their favorite foods are they would say junk food,” agrees camp counselor Chris Disney. “Now when we ask them, they start saying fruits and vegetables.”
     The Junior Master Gardener camp is part of Grow Food, Grow Hope’s Learn + Grow program, which aims to educate and excite youth about nutrition, gardening, and the natural environment.
     Kayla Beltz, who manages the Learn + Grow programs at local  pre-schools and at the Friends of Hope community garden, emphasizes the effect the programs have on children’s diets, “How great is it that your kids will eat the food you give them?  Especially food you grew yourself. You made it, and your kids are eating it…For a kid to like tomatoes is so great. I hated them when I was a kid!”
     Amanda Yerian, a gardener at the Friends of Hope community garden, has seen big changes in her daughter’s diet as well. Yerian’s daughter, Christina, never liked vegetables, but now, “as long as it comes from the garden, she will eat it.”
     Christina brings a handful of  freshly picked peas over to me and says, “See? Big ones!”
     Learn + Grow programs incorporate games, outdoor activities, crafts, stories, songs, as well as a strong   educational focus. This approach works by cultivating curiosity and an interest in learning.
     Rachel King, who also manages Learn 2 Grow programs, says, “I just like being there in that moment where they finally get it. Their face just kind of lights up and you can tell that they know something that they didn’t know before but that they know now that they’ve gone to camp. They’re like ‘I get it!’ They’re so proud of themselves and want to tell everyone and they want to show it off.”
     “I’m glad I get to be a part of that. It’s great to be that motivating factor behind what gets them to learn.” Beltz says, “Gardening is fun for them once you make it fun. Once you engage them, it’s interesting stuff.”

      While many children attend outdoor summer camps, not many camps focus on engaging nature and the outdoors. The importance of this became clear as I lead the campers in a morning yoga routine; when told to lie on the grass, I received dozens of blank stares. “On the ground? Like, on the grass?” one camper protested. “But we’ll get dirty,” said another.
     Learn + Grow programs, including JMG, strengthen the connection between the participants and the environment around them.
     At the garden station of the Junior Master Gardener camp, counselor Katie Jameson helps campers rip up newspaper to make seed bombs, a ball of wet newspaper encasing a seed. Many of the campers are incredulous that an actual plant will grow through the newspaper but are excited to try it out. “I know where I’m gonna throw mine!”
     Herb boxes, made from repurposed wood donated by the Wilmington College Physical Plant, are handed to each camper. They choose three herbs out of basil, cilantro, oregano, parsley, chives, and sage to plant, and they paint the boxes and make plant markers.
    The camps and other youth programming also  connect the community’s youth to Wilmington’s agricultural heritage. Though many still live among corn fields and farm land, they have not experienced the process of actually growing food.
     King says it’s a unique opportunity for many of the campers, “For a lot of the kids, it’s the first time they’ve ever experienced something like this. A lot have never planted a seed before. They get an overview in science class, but they don’t really get a hands-on experience where they get to explore. They get to explore and have fun. I think that’s something we offer that a lot of other places don’t.”
     Outside of the classroom, The Community Garden plots on the Wilmington College campus includes a separate “Kids Garden,” complete with stepping stones, colorful, hand-painted signs, and a variety of kid-friendly plants, such as watermelon, flowers, pumpkins, and the unusual U-shaped Armenian cucumbers.
     Learn + Grow hopes to impact an entire family through their children. King remarks, “It’s great to see kids go home and teach their parents. I think parent investment is a real motivator to keeping kids learning and interested. We send letters home at the end of the day explaining what we did at camp that day and how they can continue it at home.”
     Beltz emphasizes the importance of reaching parents through their children, “We send home letters with the kids at camp every day, to try to encourage that dialogue between parents and kids. Today with our lesson, we left them with tips for healthy eating with preschoolers. We hope kids will go home and tell their parents and we hope parents recognize that and take the initiative to do something about it.”
     As the lessons progress and the camps conclude, the signs of change are apparent. By the end of Junior Master Gardener camp, campers sit on grass and dig in the dirt without a second thought. Preschoolers shout out names of vegetables when asked about their favorite foods, and turnips were sent home with each of the children at the community garden.
    As a preschool lesson about weeds draws to a close, a mother picks her child up from the day care. She points to a dandelion and says to her child, “Look, what a pretty flower!” And the child replied, “No, mom, that’s a weed.”

 Melissa Serafin, 2013 Summer Associate

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