Teachers at the K-State Center for Child Development use the produce from the garden to prepare simple dishes with their students. Here’s a recipe for Caprese Salad that is easy to make in a classroom.
- Thick slices of a Ripe Tomato (enough for each child to have at least one)
- An equal number of slices of fresh mozzarella cheese
- Twice as many leaves of fresh basil
- A pinch of salt and pepper
- Olive oil
Make sure everyone washes their hands and the work surface prior to touching the food.
Starting at the edge of a serving platter, place a slice of tomato, a basil leaf, a slice of mozzarella and another basil leaf. Continue in that pattern, forming a spiral from the outside in, until all the ingredients have been arranged. The salad should end in the center of the platter. Drizzle the salad with olive oil and sprinkle with black pepper and salt.
Upon arriving at the Center for Child Development (CCD) on the campus of Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, visitors quickly recognize the uniqueness of the facility. Although there are outdoor structures for children to play on, they are not the manufactured, brightly colored, plastic slides and climbing walls typical at many child care centers. During the design of this facility manufactured playscapes were eliminated; there are no monkey bars, swings, or slides onsite. Instead, students are surrounded by natural spaces with features to encourage wonder and imagination. Students play house in willow huts made from tree branches and interact with their food regularly as it is being grown all around them in the play areas. Through their exploration, students have first-hand experiences learning where their food comes from and what it means to become environmental stewards.
Establishing a Curriculum
In operation for over 25 years, the Kansas State CCD provides care for children from infant through sixth grade. The top three curricular goals include:
- To connect children to the natural world and create future stewards of our earth’s natural environment
- To teach children about nutrition and healthy lifestyles
- Create positive relationships among staff and parents
To better meet these goals, the center’s leaders determined a school garden would be a useful tool. The students at the center come from a diverse array of cultures. In addition, the staff at the center are primarily educated in early childhood development, not horticulture, meaning the curriculum used to accompany the garden program needed to have a component of education for the teachers as well. Administrators at the center determined that existing curricula wasn’t a match for their school garden program based on the needs of the youth and educators. This meant that a new curriculum would need to be developed, a task taken on by the center’s Food Program Coordinator, Kylie Martin. A former chef, Kylie recognizes the importance of allowing children to interact with their food and getting children eating fruits and vegetables at a young age. Kylie accepted the challenge and created a curriculum that presented opportunities for even the youngest of children who attend their facility to have experiences in the garden. Kylie’s lessons focus on connecting with produce from the garden in the kitchen. Children are given opportunities to explore the various edible plants and educators are provided discussion points to encourage inquiry. The curriculum allows educators and children to learn together.
Supporting the Program
A number of relationships were established to help fund this program. The primary source of funding comes through parent fees including subsidies they receive to help them pay tuition. The Child and Adult Federal Food Program pays for approximately one-third of the costs of serving meals to the children at this facility. The center received funding from several grants including NGA’s Muhammad Ali Peace Garden Grant in 2011. In addition, local hardware stores and families of children at the facility share donations with the center.
Harvest is a significant time in Kansas as farmers reap their crops to share locally and with the rest of the country. Lessons throughout late summer and fall are focused on showing the students the origins of their food. Children are engaged in activities about plant parts and saving seeds from their crops, along with field trips to local farms to give them broader perspective of the importance of growing food. Because the center is nature-based the children experience harvest time by being immersed in the changes happening outside. Students harvest crops that they started from seed earlier in the year. The children are excited about every step of the process which engages the teachers as well. Children love planting the seeds and wondering what the plants will look like when they sprout; they enjoy watering the seedlings and hunting for fruit; they get excited about seeing bees and butterflies pollinating the plants and then finally getting to pick what they have grown.
This year’s garden has produced a plethora of tomatoes including Roma, Big Boy, Cherry, and Yellow Pear tomatoes and large batches of basil. All 14 classes are making Caprese salad. The children harvest the fruit and basil, bring it into the classroom, wash it, add mozzarella, and olive oil, salt and pepper, and enjoy.
With the butternut squash crop, each classroom will make squash soup and roast the seeds to eat. The children are able to measure, pour and mix. The teachers encourage the children to take note of colors, smells, and textures of each ingredient and to hypothesize about the final product they are creating to eat.
Establishing a Vision
The current location of the Kansas State Center for Child Development has only been in place since 2011. Prior to that, the facility was housed at a re-purposed apartment complex. During this time, teachers and administrators found ways to provide opportunities for inquiry through gardening on a much smaller scale. Leaders at the facility, including director, Debra Ring, also used this time to create a vision of what the new facility should offer to best meet the needs of the staff, children, and families.
Debra’s vision for the new facility went beyond the outdoor environment and took into consideration what the children would experience in the classroom as well. Floor to ceiling windows were installed in every classroom to allow those indoors to be within view of nearby nature. Parents are encouraged to visit their child’s classroom and share their favorite recipes for the veggies and herbs growing in the gardens. Some of those recipes are used in the classroom lessons and others are collected into the center’s cookbook. If there is extra produce at the end of the year, it is shared with parents as 70% are low income. Each of these examples show efforts made to encourage parent interaction and continue the learning of gardening and fruit and vegetable consumption at home.
Although it was years in the making and numerous challenges had to be overcome, the current Kansas State University Center for Child Development facility is a model of excellence for not only enabling children to interact with their environment, but for establishing and following through with a vision that meets the needs of everyone involved.