June 30, 2015
LIVONIA, Mich. – With the help of Madonna University students, young gardeners plant and care for vegetables, try new foods, and even learn such life skills as teamwork. In other words, it’s a garden that can’t be “beet.”
Madonna dietetics students plant, weed and water alongside elementary-school children in the Children’s Urban Garden, at the St. Vincent and Sarah Fisher Center, in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood. The project has been ongoing for the last several years as a part of Madonna professor Laura Freeland Kull’s Community Nutrition service-learning class.
An element of the six-week Children’s Summer Program, the Children’s Urban Garden involves students who have just finished first through fifth grade. It’s designed to help them retain the information they learned the previous school year and give them a head start on what they will be taught the next academic year. They also play games, take field trips and participate in other activities.
Kull explained that her Community Nutrition class requires the students spend at least five hours planting and maintaining the Children’s Urban Garden at three locations during the semester, which encourages them to experience multiple aspects of community nutrition. The 18 students in the class work in the garden on a rotation to make sure the vegetables are cared for throughout the semester.
Kull said that while her students engage the children in discussions about which veggie is their favorite, they are pleasantly surprised to learn how many children actually like vegetables. “Generally, they have a really fun time,” she said. The children watch their vegetables grow during the summer program and eventually take some home to their families.
In its three beds the Children’s Garden sprouts a bean teepee – an excellent playing and hiding spot for young children – plus rows of tomatoes, zucchini, carrots, leafy greens, hot and bell peppers, cucumbers, broccoli and even a little corn.
Eva Essex, children’s program coordinator at St. Vincent and Sarah Fisher Center, said without the Madonna University students, the garden wouldn’t be nearly as big or well-maintained. Working in the garden is both fun and educational for the children, as they learn how to plant and care for the vegetables and patiently watch them grow. And when their parents come to pick them up at the end of the day, the kids are excited to show off their hard work.
Some of the youngsters are leery of tasting vegetables at first, but “tasting produce fresh out of the garden is a great experience for them,” Essex said. “Learning how to grow their own food has a huge impact on the kids. There is so much excitement when they arrive for the after school program, asking, ‘Are we going outside to the garden today?’ They even enjoy doing the weeding.”
David Camilleri, a pre-dietetics student in his third year of classes at Madonna University, said they also played games with the kids. For example, in the nutrition relay, the child draws a card with the picture of a food item on it, and they must run to the appropriate bucket of fruit, vegetable, protein, dairy or grain, to match the picture to the correct food group.
To familiarize the children with the various vegetables, there are signs throughout the garden that identify each veggie and the vitamins it contains, to encourage them to try it. On Camilleri’s first day of volunteering, a child asked him what was in his salad; it was a green pepper. “These kids are 9, 10 years old and don’t know what a green pepper looks like,” he said.
Camilleri, 26, from Livonia, said although some of the kids were skittish about working in the dirt and finding worms, he tried to make it fun for them by making a game out of who could find the first worm and then explaining how worms help the soil. The Madonna students would get the children to practice math skills by counting seeds or measuring how far apart or deep to plant them.
Not only are community gardens extremely important, but when children dig-in they are more likely to enjoy gardening and eating the vegetables for the rest of their lives. “It’s such a simple thing that can make a big difference,” he said.
Research supports this: While children’s gardens expose young students to different vegetables, they might also improve other life skills. One study, Growing Minds: The Effects of a One-year School Garden Program on Six Constructs of Life Skills of Elementary School Children (http://horttech.ashspublications.org/content/15/3/453.full.pdf+html), published in the July-September 2005 issue of Hort Technology, the journal for the American Society for Horticultural Science, showed that school garden programs improved students’ skills of working as part of a team.