Garden teaches kids how to get down, dirty and healthy

A special curriculum focused on healthy eating at Apollo School has students try foods like hummus with peppers made with fresh vegetables from an outdoor food garden. | Contributed photo
A special curriculum focused on healthy eating at Apollo School has students try foods like hummus with peppers made with fresh vegetables from an outdoor food garden. | Contributed photo

Growing students’ smarts requires dedication, patience and care. Getting down in the dirt is also part of the educational process at Apollo School.

The Des Plaines elementary school is providing kids hands-on experiences in healthy eating and food cultivation through an outdoor garden project and special lesson plans.

Physical education instructor Carolyn Kosiba, first-grade teacher Maria Swidzinski, and staff from the after-school program Total Learning Community tend the food garden with the help of students and volunteers.

The project took root in the spring of 2011, when East Maine School District 63 received an $119,000 grant for child wellness from the Cook County Department of Public Health.

Local organizations also contributed resources, including the Glenview Park District and Apollo School PTA. Home Depot in Niles gave gardening tools and soil. Members of the North Maine Community Church lent their skills to build a composting system.

Kosiba said caring for the large, in-ground garden the first year was challenging, even with volunteer help. The summer’s record-high heat also didn’t help.

TLC staff has since revamped the program to make it more manageable.

The garden was relocated to an alcove between Apollo School and the district’s administrative building to increase accessibility for students and make watering the plants easier.

Some seeds were planted in raised beds. Staff also chose heartier vegetables and fruits that would survive with minimal care.

The project expanded to include composting of school lunch waste products and a worm chalet. A new curriculum for healthy eating and environmental awareness was introduced district-wide.

Additional vegetable and herbs were introduced over time, including squash, turnips, cilantro and rosemary.

Now, Kosiba said, “we have a harvest.”

During the school year, a professionally-trained chef regularly visits Apollo to cook with children. The youngsters have sampled hummus on handpicked cucumbers, nibbled on pizza made with fresh basil, and used the garden’s tomatoes to make salsas and sauces.

Kosiba explained gardening is physical and mental exercise for young green thumbs.

Digging, weeding, carrying water and utilizing tools help build endurance, flexibility and strength.

The brain gets a fair amount of activity, too, as students learn about new foods, the structure of plants and differences between organic and conventional gardening.

Children with special needs in particular reap the sensory stimulation benefits the activity provides, Kosiba noted.

In classrooms, students pot small plants that later get transferred outdoors.

Going outside this spring meant children could check on bunnies holed up in the compost bins.

They also found that creepy-crawlies on their plants and in the dirt – worms especially – weren’t so scary after all.

“They were pets for some students,” Kosiba said. “They had names.”

Students can see for themselves the life cycle of plants and the process of composting.

“They get that that apple one day is going to turn to soil,” Kosiba said.

The garden, she said, “is truly where students make those connections.”

Swidzinski added that when birds were found to be eating caterpillars, “that was another lesson.”

Last year she incorporated gardening and plant science into her literacy program.

“It was a wonderful experience for the kids to not only read about (gardening), but to go out and plant and some of the things they read in the books,” she said.

Swidzinski also shared how planting potatoes brought back memories for immigrant students in fifth and sixth grades whose families farmed in their native countries.

Looking forward, District 63 is exploring ways to turn its plot of veggies and fruits into a community garden. Planting gardens at other schools is also on the “to do” list.

Kosiba can already visualize grape vines climbing school walls.

“We would love to bring these experiences to other buildings,” she said.

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