Lynea Mitchell passes seeds around her preschool classroom and challenges her students to compare them against the picture on the seed packet. One child shakes the packet. “They sound like maracas.” Another student looks at the packet and wrinkles his nose. “I don’t eat Brussels sprouts,” he says. As they talk, the students plant the seeds and place the pots on a seeding shelf in their classroom. The exercise is part of Lynea’s Project Grow Garden curriculum at The Music Settlement at University Circle’s Center for Early Childhood.
Through the help of a Neighborhood Connections community-improvement grant, Lynea curated and wrote lesson plans around nine interactive growing-season thematic units, including seeds, soil, water, pollination, flowers, and birds. Each theme includes between four and six lessons for students ages 3 to 6. In addition to planting and harvesting the on-campus garden, the curriculum’s lessons include songs, finger-plays, and opportunities for hands-on indoor and outdoor learning. Students who raise questions are provided with extra exploration time as well as book recommendations from the school’s Taylor Early Childhood Library.
The garden has become a part of the children’s school day, in large part because of the curriculum Lynea developed.
“The pride and the joy on the students’ faces—along with a few tomato seeds—as they share the latest garden update is priceless,” says Karen Heitlinger, chair of The Music Settlement Center for Early Childhood.
The garden curriculum supports the students’ gross motor development by throwing, catching, balancing, strengthening muscles, and improving hand-eye coordination, among other skills. Play remains at the forefront of the learning structure. “Kids learn through play, but we have observed also that kids learn even more through structured play,” Lynea says.
On planting or harvest days, students have specific stations that challenge a wide range of skills, similar to a classroom’s different learning centers. In addition to creating and maintaining healthy bodies, the garden provides real-world environmental lessons. “Tomatoes no longer come ‘from the store,’” Lynea says. “They come from a seed that we planted that grew into a tall plant that then produced the tomato that we picked. We talk about the vitamins in each plant and how they help us to become healthy and strong, and how each muscle we’re strengthening helps us do a particular activity.”
The garden also grows students’ empathy and cooperation. “Encouraging social-emotional development through play is the easiest way to watch their skills grow,” Lynea says. “The goal of a recipe is a tasty meal. The goal of this curriculum is healthy, kind, garden-loving students.”