Children at the Sunshine School are getting a taste for organic gardening every day when they go outside to play.
The Marcus Jewish Community Center’s East Cobb preschool, housed at Temple Kol Emeth, features two sets of raised garden beds — one in the playground for preschoolers, the other in the playground for toddlers — where the children grow organic produce for their own use.
The gardens include such herbs as basil, lavender, mint, oregano, parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme and chives all year, plus seasonal fruits and vegetables. Tomatoes, cucumbers, okra and strawberries are common in the summer, while lettuce, spinach, kale and carrots are among the colder-weather crops.
“The students are learning things in a real, hand’s-on way,” Sunshine School Director Raye Lynn Banks said. “For example, if a teacher has a lesson about plant nutrition, the students will get to directly apply this knowledge to their work that day in the garden.”
Banks said science teacher Stephanie Joseph deserves the credit for the garden program, which dates back to 2012 and a small grant from Whole Foods.
The small gardens then became part of the Jewish Community Center Association of North America’s participation in the Discover CATCH (Coordinated Approach to Child Health) program, which combines classroom gardening and nutrition with physical activity and encourages healthy eating.
Banks said Discover CATCH incorporates Jewish texts and takes inspiration from the Talmud’s prohibition on living in a city that lacks a physician and a garden.
The program also fits well with the gardens’ placement on the Sunshine School’s playgrounds. When children go outside to play, the plants are right there for them to tend to, as they do each day.
The gardens do not produce huge amounts of food, Banks said, but the fruits and vegetables the children grow become the core of meals supplemented by purchased food and develop an appreciation for where food comes from.
For example, the children grew a potato and tomatoes at the same time a few years ago, and they wound up making their own French fries and ketchup. Banks joked that it was probably the most expensive jar of ketchup ever.
“We are happy to be giving our students an early appreciation for healthy foods,” she said.
The preschool playground also has a composting bin to produce soil for the gardens. Banks said the children know to save yard waste, banana peels and leftovers from the produce they grow to place into the composting bin, and they make sure to turn the bin when they’re outside.
She said Daron “Farmer D” Joffe praised the quality of the resulting organic soil when he tested it.
Just being exposed to the healthy foods they grow is beneficial to the students. “The children love getting to eat the food they grow,” Banks said. “We encourage the children to at least try everything. If they think it is something they will not like, we will tell them how much better it will taste because they helped grow it, and this usually persuades them to try things that are outside of their comfort zone.”
Parents appreciate the enthusiasm for healthy foods their preschoolers are bringing home. “One parent sent me a message on Facebook thanking me because her son tried and loved okra from the school’s vegetable garden, and he now asks for okra as a snack,” Banks said. “This is what the program is all about.”
Photos courtesy of the Sunshine School
What: Open house
Where: The Sunshine School, Temple Kol Emeth, 1415 Old Canton Road, East Cobb
When: 10:15 a.m. Friday, Jan. 22
Enrollment: Open enrollment for the 2016-17 school year begins Monday, Feb. 8.