When it comes to hands-on projects, students at Oak Hill Elementary take that idea literally. On a recent, sunny morning, children in all grades took turns preparing the soil and planting vegetables in their outdoor garden.
Each class has a vegetable bed; and besides having fun, the students learned about responsibility and healthy eating. They also created one of just eight, American Heart Association Teaching Gardens in the nation.
"This presented a great opportunity for us," said Oak Hill Principal Amy Goodloe. "We already had the outdoor classroom established, but needed a structured program to apply to it. This will teach the children about healthy lifestyles and how they could get involved in growing their own foods."
Before students in each grade level began their work, Goodloe explained to them what they’d be doing and why. She talked to the younger children about being guardians of the garden and taking care of the little plants "to keep them strong and healthy like you are."
WITH A GROUP OF FIFTH-GRADERS, she had them tell her how a garden fits into healthy living. The students replied that "fresh fruits and vegetables are good for your body and help keep your heart healthy." They also said gardening was good exercise.
Some 75 students planted seeds to grow cool-weather crops - cabbage, peas, lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower and radishes - in several, large, planter boxes. Parent volunteer Kay Schlembach told them they were planting peas and beans because "they put great nutrients into the dirt to make it better for growing crops."
Once the plants start growing, said fifth-grade teacher Lou Sonoskey, "The students will weed, water and thin them, check for insects and monitor the growth. And one class will blog about the garden on the school computer system."
Student Hannah Snarr helped her classmates break up chunks of clay and mix organic fertilizer into the soil of their vegetable beds. "It was fun to work in groups," she said. "We’ll make bar graphs of how quickly things grow, compare whose crops grow faster and try to figure out why."
Hannah said the things she learns will stick with her more than if she’d just read them in a book because, "When you do something, you remember how to do it more. Then you could do it at home, and it’ll make eating healthy food more important."
Pratyusha Veerareddy, 10 , enjoyed gardening. "I’m excited," she said. "I’m going to ask my dad and mom if we can have our own garden. Kids should spend more time outdoors than indoors watching TV and playing video games. Outdoors is fun, and you can garden with friends and family."
Besides that, said Pratyusha, "You’re making your own fruits and vegetables, instead of buying them in a grocery store. You’re being little farmers and saving money."
Matthew Bucko,10, said gardening was cool. "I like playing in the dirt and stuff," he said. "We have a garden in my backyard and I helped my mom plant it. You learn about healthy eating and you can watch your plants grow."
Agreeing, Harsha Chivaluri, 11, said, "It’s fun to wait and see what’s going to happen and get interactive with [your food]. I hope the plants will grow quickly so I can see the harvest. When you eat healthy, it helps you grow healthy so your heart will be healthy."
Also enjoying herself was Caroline Woodson, 11. "We can get our hands dirty, and we get to have the experience of planting a garden," she said. "We’ll learn what foods are good for us, and we can actually help grow them."
Rubbiya Azhar, 11, said she’s planted flowers, avocados, potatoes and tomatoes at home. But she admitted being "amazed to learn how plants help your heart to live."
HELPING COORDINATE this program at Oak Hill is parent volunteer Sally Burns. She said another important thing is for the students to learn about harvesting. "Children in suburbia don’t always know where their food comes from and the importance of agriculture and crops," said Burns. "Many just assume food will always be in their grocery stores and just comes from there."
Kirsten Baier with the American Heart Association said her organization got a grant to start the teaching gardens and provided the soil, planter boxes, seeds, vegetables, shovels and gloves. "One in three children are overweight or obese, and there are significant health benefits of gardening," she said. "People develop healthy eating habits, and fruits and vegetables lower the risk factors for heart disease and strokes.
"We believe that, when you educate children about nutritional choices, they’ll share the knowledge with their families and others," continued Baier. "And Oak Hill Elementary has been a tremendous supporter of the American Heart Association. In fact, in February, it raised $17,000 through its Jump Rope for Heart program."
All in all, said Principal Goodloe, "The children really enjoyed planting their gardens. There were lots of big smiles. They were interested in knowing how we’re going to harvest and maintain the garden - and they also wanted to know if they could take home what they’ve grown."
Now, the students are growing summer crops. They started seedlings indoors; then early this month, they planted corn and tomatoes.
"What’s great is that the American Heart Association also provides us with a curriculum for the teachers to use in the classroom," added Goodloe. "It even gave us information about workshops for parents to promote heart-healthy behavior."