By LOIS KINDLE
Some third-grade kids and their 5th-grade counterparts at Apollo Beach Elementary School have been having a ball lately learning the ins and outs of gardening and healthy eating.
Thanks to education grants from the American Heart Association and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, the kids planted and are now tending a teaching garden, filled with all kinds of vegetables. Teachers Michelle Friday and Pam Johns and several parent volunteers built structures for the garden Feb. 8, but it’s the students who are making sure the veggies grow to harvest.
The learning garden is giving these children an experience they wouldn’t have had at school without the grant funding. And since they are the ones who are growing the foods they’re learning about, they’ve become thoroughly vested in the program.
“The students were part of the garden design,” said Johns. “They used their knowledge of area and perimeter learned in math class to discuss different designs,” she said, adding that the kids also gained real-world experience by using newly learned estimating skills to understand how the funds for the garden were used.
“The students each planted a seedling of their choice and have been tracking its growth,” she added. “They know which plant is “theirs” and want to point it out to others.”
She’s not kidding. Ask any one of the children how their plant is doing, and they’ll escort you to it immediately.
“The American Heart Association gave us a grant because one-third of children are overweight, and they wanted us to promote healthy eating,” said 10-year-old Abigail Murray, a 5th-grader.
“And it’s a fun way for all the kids to get involved and learn where food comes from and what they are putting in their bodies,” added her classmate Mackenzie Brooks, 11.
The students also planted seeds in starter trays and in the garden beds, and many seeds sprouted in just seven days.
Johns said sometimes, instead of playing at recess, the children check on their plants because they’re so interested in the garden.
“They are super excited about it,” Friday added. “They’ve learned all about the plants in the area, gardening without pesticides and lots more.”
The teaching garden is a hands-on learning lab that helps kids understand how math and science apply to their lives, the origins of the food they eat and how to make healthier food choices, Friday said. In-class lessons have included subjects like flower dissection (to learn plant parts and their functions), root propagation and water absorption. They actually decided what type of shed they needed to store supplies for the garden.
Currently, the young gardeners are growing cucumbers, Jalapeno peppers, tomatoes, yellow bell peppers, sunflowers, broccoli, peas, carrots, onions and more. Since they’re learning about organic gardening, they’ll be composting in a tumbling composter donated by a parent.
“We have plans to have a worm box and use the soil from the worms in the garden,” Johns said. “And we hope to have most of our water supply come from the rain barrels. For insect control, we’ve planted marigolds and, if needed, we are planning to use organic methods.”
There will be a multiclass celebration later this spring after the harvest, and at the end of the school year, the student gardeners will assess the project and make a presentation on how the teaching garden influenced their decisions on healthy food choices, Friday said. They will evaluate the first season’s harvest, graph the results and determine the need for crop rotation for next season.