It was such a rainy morning for today’s garden visit to Congregation Kol Ami of Westchester, it was hard not to be a little discouraged on the ride up to White Plains from Long Island. I wondered how much I’d actually get out of the visit, AND, whether I’d be able to take enough pictures to get a really good sense of the space. Well my fears were quickly put to rest as I was absorbed into the story of the 4s community garden. A big thank you to Nan Blank, Director of the preschool, and Susan Kohn Arovas, the garden specialist, for getting wet and taking the time to talk about their journey and approach.
COMPANIONS ON MY TRIP
This trip was extra special because I was accompanied by Elizabeth Kessler from Community Synagogue of Port Washington, and we met up with Ann Pardes and Abra Goldemberg from the Rosenthal JCC of Northern Westchester. It was exciting to be able to connect everyone together since each is in the planning phase for creating their own spaces and garden programs. As they let me know, there’s a lot to learn from others who are experimenting!
A DIFFERENT APPROACH AT KOL AMI
While everyone in the school is welcome to visit the community garden, it’s really the 4s students who adopt and develop the space year after year. Thanks to a number of dedicated and enthusiastic parents a few years ago a vision was turned into reality; a draft that sits in Nan’s office to a fully operational part of the school curriculum. Susan was one of those parents. She started out as an active volunteer and is now on staff as the official Garden Specialist!
Susan comes two or three times a month, like the other specialists who are part of the overall program, and spends time with each 4s class one after the other. While working on particular projects each class will take on a different task all contributing to the process. As the specialist, Susan typically works independently and decides what the focus will be, what activities the children will engage in, and what the educational goals will be. With a strong Judaic background Susan seamlessly links garden activities with Jewish values, holiday celebrations, and an appreciation for the environment (and hard work). With spring blooms fading around the perimeter of the garden, Susan describes how the children recently came out here, learned about the different blooms and picked their favorites for the Shabbat table in their classrooms. It’s a hands-on approach, she says, that changes with the seasons and as holidays come and go.
Unlike other more untamed approaches to an outdoor garden or classroom (which are fabulous too), the beauty of this particular space is in its sense of organization and intentionality. Walking from end to end, Nan points out several different elements that have been incorporated into the space. Scroll over or click on each picture below to learn more about that element.
The perimeter of the garden is planted with flowering bulbs.
A tree stump storytime area sits beneath a flowering tree.
Art and a set of chimes hang on the wall.
A mezuzah waits at the entrance gate.
And a compost pile sits in the corner begging to be turned.
But that’s only half of what makes this garden, well a garden.
Closest to the parking lot three rectangular beds sit in the sun. Lucky for us Susan braves the pouring rain to field questions related to the beds, the soil, the weeding, the planting and of course the plants themselves. Along with the lesson planning, these are important questions as Ann, Abra, and Elizabeth start to envision their own spaces and their own goals. Susan describes how each bed is planted with a variety of vegetables that she knows the children love to track, care for and eat. In the newly planted summer beds it’s hard to see the little sprouts, but they’re there, and it was the children’s work that got them into the ground. Vegetables are an important component of the curriculum and Susan has planted peppers, cucumbers, onions and tomatoes which will probably become an Israeli salad. Because she wants as many children to see the fruits of their labor before summer she looks for early harvest varieties, starts seeds indoors.
Throughout the school year Susan utilizes lessens from the garden to make holidays more experiential and to raise awareness about the value of organic materials and the environment in general. Because what takes place in the garden is so unique for a large percentage of the class she believes it can be one of the greatest teaching tools for vocabulary, for science, for cooking, and for developing the senses. Although she only comes twice or three times a month, the children are especially excited to dive into projects, even weeding. But first she says, they have to learn what a weed is . You can tell she enjoys every minute of it. The only challenge so far has been growing pumpkins for the fall harvest season. Last year’s small patch didn’t seem to have enough sun late in the summer so they’e in the middle of building a new bed in a sunnier spot of the property.
Before I leave I take another look at the plaque that hangs on the wall on the far side of the garden. It recognizes the efforts of the six parents who took initiative and decided that the grassy hill to the left of the school would make for a terrific garden for their school. Elizabeth acknowledges to me the importance of getting parents involved and giving them room to follow their own passion. I know Nan couldn’t agree more.