Becky Collins, this week’s Educator of the Week, created a gardening program for her kindergarten students, teaching them about where food comes from and how it’s grown. Through this project, Becky has convinced her pickiest eaters to try broccoli, and in the process she has changed the way they learn new skills. She is a kindergarten teacher at Lipscomb Academy in Nashville, Tennessee, and has been teaching for 38 years.
Why did you become interested in incorporating gardening into the curriculum?
I grew up on a farm so I’ve always grown things, and it just made sense to do that with my kiddos. One fall I asked my students where their food comes from, and they rolled their eyes and immediately said “from the grocery store.” So I asked them, “where does the grocery store get the food from?” They looked at me blankly because they didn’t have a clue. As the years have gone by, I’ve noticed that kids have had less and less experience with knowing the origin of food.
Literacy is about more than reading a book. If you don’t even know where your food comes from, you’re not fully literate. So we started talking about how food is grown on a farm, and what happens before it arrives at the grocery store.
We have gardens in our playground area, and our school allocated each kindergartner a square foot in the raised beds. Since the students have their own space, they learn to take ownership for their plants and care for them. They develop a whole new understanding of where their food comes from, and how much work it takes to grow it.
The garden sounds like it supports a multi-faceted project. How much time does your class spend working on this?
It runs all year and is an integral part of kindergarten. For the spring, we start as early as the end of February planting cool crops like cabbage and kale. During winter, we plant seeds in cups indoors and do experiments. Since the kindergartners are learning what plants need to survive, we experiment with plants that get no water, too much water, and different amounts of sunlight.
I’ve found that gardening is a great way to tie in literacy, writing, and STEAM. We take out our rulers and measure the plants to see how they’re growing. We measure rainfall, and we’ll use the different number of vegetables to learn about graphs. We’ll talk about pollinators, earthworms, and other creatures that may nibble on our garden, like deer and rabbits. Gardening begins to show them how many connections there are in the world.
We also keep garden journals, and that way we tie in the school’s writing initiative. And we even bring the students outside to read gardening storybooks.
I remind them: remember how long it took for a seed to turn into a sprout, and then into a vegetable. We’re planting seeds of writing, so it takes time to be able to do it well. But we don’t give up; we just keep growing.
How do the students’ relationships to food change over the course of the year?
The changes are small but they’re there. When we first plant things like broccoli and kale, the kids are like, “yuck, that’s gross.” But when they have taken care of it for a while and it’s theirs, they get really interested in it. They become more knowledgeable, respect food more by being better eaters, and learn about what’s healthy to eat. Parents tell me that their children will ask for carrots in their lunches, and they eat their food instead of playing with it or throwing it out. I hear the kids say, “don’t eat your cookies before your beans.” There’s a subtle change happening in their attitude and the way they think about food.
It’s so cool that the project changes your students’ relationship to food. Has gardening affected other aspects of your students’ lives?
When I first started teaching kindergarten, we were outside every day, multiple times a day. No one said, “don’t play in the dirt, you’ll get dirty” because we expected kids to get dirty. But now, if kids go home with sand in their shoes from the sandbox, parents are upset. In this project, I wanted gardening to be considered an academic subject that required kids to go outside and get dirty. Getting outside and using their hands is how kids learn.
Kids also benefit from experiencing the slowness of growth in real time. Too often, students think I’m a microwave and I can do things instantly for them. Having to wait a week or two to see just a sprout—and then another six weeks to harvest—is really good for them. They learn that it takes time for things to happen; it’s not instant.
And I’ve seen that lesson of patience carry over in the classroom when they’re trying new things. For example, it’s normal for kindergartners to get frustrated when they learn handwriting and can’t do it perfectly the first time. I remind them: remember how long it took for a seed to turn into a sprout, and then into a vegetable. We’re planting seeds of writing, so it takes time to be able to do it well. But we don’t give up; we just keep growing.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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The Educator Spotlight series features inspiring activities and lessons that educators are implementing with their students that connect them to the world in bold and exciting ways.