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Every Jewish preschool should have an edible school garden

Shariee Calderone

I often see two “firsts” when a preschool begins a journey to connect the children in the school to nature in more intentional ways. In the Jewish preschools that I’m blessed to work in the NY Metro area, I see them begin by a) incorporating more natural materials into their classrooms, or, b) digging new garden beds somewhere on their property. For many educators creating a garden bed feels very doable. Yet at the same time it can also be a bit overwhelming. What are we going to grow? What size bed do we need? Who’s going to maintain it? What’s Jewish about gardening? Who will instruct the children? Will the children eat what they grow?

To help answer some of these questions I turned to Hillary Marra, a Family Food and Garden Educator at the Rosenthal JCC Preschool located in Pleasantville, NY.

So what exactly is a Family Food and Garden Educator?

As a Family Food and Garden Educator and Consultant, I create edible school garden experiences for children and families. 

Many times a school may not realize how easy it is to have edible garden experiences without a formal garden structure. As you can see from the photo below, we can plant salad crops in bags of soil! All you need is sun, water and the desire to do this.

Hillary edited

When a school is ready to expand a program and build a garden, I recommend raised beds. Two popular edible garden harvests I offer are salad wraps with homemade vinaigrette and RadishFest (radishes on baguettes with cream cheese). 

What got you interested in this?

Starting edible school gardens at schools grew out of my private practice teaching hands-on healthy cooking to children and families. I co-founded the edible gardens at the elementary, middle and high school in my school district. I believe in nourishing our children with engaging, hands-on sensory learning experiences and an edible garden teaches so many important lessons:

  • taking care of the earth
  • sustainability
  • caring for oneself
  • knowing how to grow and cook food
  • collaboration and teamwork
  • as well as using the garden for literacy, curriculum, developing fine and gross motor skills, use of language and more

On the playing field of the garden, all children are equal and when we feed our children’s self-esteem, which gardens do, anything is possible.

What are your guiding principles?

I don’t force kids to eat anything! When they cook it, they eat it and when they grow it, they really eat it, especially with their peers and especially if we don’t make them eat anything. When a child grows the colorful baby lettuces and bright magenta watermelon radishes, usually they are eager to taste it.

I respect each child where they are and meet them where they are, letting them create their own garden experience. I like to feed positive self-esteem. The end goal is not to have the children eat the food they grow, it’s to create opportunities for the children to have engaging, hands-on experiences with the garden and the food, whatever that may be for them. I am all about getting their hands dirty and playing with the food on the plate. The garden brings together children, families, staff, administration and community and really creates a sense of community within a school.


 

“Having a Garden  & Food Consultant on staff enriches the lives of our young children, their families, and our staff while working toward establishing healthy eating, proper nutrition and recipes for wholesome cooking.” 

– Ann Pardes, Director of Early Childhood Education, Rosenthal JCC of Northern Westchester


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Hillary Marra and Ann Pardes both participate in the Jewish Outdoor Environments Community of Practice supported by The Jewish Education Project. Participating educators share ideas and strategies for creating robust developmentally appropriate nature-inspired environments that are developmentally appropriate for children, rooted in Jewish values, and that support parent and family engagement.

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