Planting seeds of learning

Thursday, March 31st, 2011
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North Hawaii News

At the beginning of the session, they were 10 toddlers doing pretty much what you might expect. They were fidgeting, running around the tennis court or clinging to their parents. But then the teacher brought out the dirt, and within minutes they were digging, planting, curious and focused on the task at hand.

“Enlarging the attention span at this age is the biggest thing to learn,” said Garden of the Mind Project Coordinator Rachelle Moore. “This is important. Can you follow direction, can you participate, are you ready to learn?”

Garden of the Mind is a school readiness program in Waikoloa, for children aged 2-5. These kids are learning things they need to know before they enter a classroom, through gardening. The skills they are learning here will help to prepare them for the learning experience when they reach a traditional classroom. Skills like how to greet one another, how to share, how to wait their turn, to sit still and listen, and to overcome shyness. They are learning how to participate in a group setting without yelling and running around.

“Teachers feel that kids need to come into kindergarten with these behavioral literacy skills,” Moore said. “A lot of kids who come to school do not already have these skills.”

At the beginning of this session, the first of three, the children signed in with crayon, then formally introduced themselves. Next, they followed instructor Michele Ott in a rousing rendition of the “Plant Dance,” a variation on “The Hokey Pokey,” And then came the highlight of the day. The toddlers were given their own plastic bucket and shovel, and with help, planted their very own radish seeds (radishes grow fast). The children will be taking care of the plants at home, nurturing them, watering them, and watching them grow into something edible.

“This is a good way to get children excited, by watching plants grow. Hopefully we can get them interested in a variety of things, including how important it is to eat fruits and vegetables,” Moore said.

Garden of the Mind is the brainchild of Moore and Ott, the program director and lead instructor. They wanted to do something about the great number of kids who enter kindergarten or pre-school lacking behavioral literacy skills, which makes the student unprepared to learn and the teacher’s job that much more difficult. It especially fills the gap for low-income kids whose family cannot afford pre-school, and home schooled kids who do not have the same opportunity to interact with their peers in the community.

“At home they are the queen and the king. When they get to school they find out there are a lot more kings and queens,” Moore said.

Ott is a master gardener and substitute teacher in Waikoloa. Moore is a retired academic librarian and instructor in the social sciences and humanities. Her first love is teaching, and is passionate about instilling a love of learning in kids. She believes in hands-on learning in creating an active learning environment, and in thinking outside the well-constructed box of the traditional classroom. Thus, Garden of the Mind was created to teach this kind of preschool literacy through basic gardening concepts and techniques.

“This is active learning, versus traditional classroom learning, where you are just being told what to do. I want students to love learning,” Moore said. “You have to love learning to be successful. Your attitude has a lot to do with how well you learn the alphabet.”

Does this mean the alphabet can be taught on a tennis court, in front of the Bookmobile, planting radishes? According to Moore, absolutely.

“We can turn a parking lot into a learning environment,” Moore stated. “There’s no limit to what we can do through the concept of gardening. This is just the beginning of the vision.”

Moore’s vision for teaching outside the box extends to older kids, who could be taught more complex gardening techniques like composting, irrigation, and teaching high school students how to cook — one of many future projects she hopes to implement in the community.

“This is the signature program of Friends of the Library, and what we are trying to do for the youth of Waikoloa,” Moore said.

Garden of the Mind is sponsored by the Waikoloa Friends of the Library, of which Moore is a member. She wrote the grant for the program, which is made possible by the Hartwell and Rebecca Carter Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation. Many supplies and materials were donated by local merchants including Home Depot.

Volunteers from the community are also encouraged to participate, like Priscilla Sears, 87, who read a story aloud to the children.

“It is a delight for me to see the children jump and play, for me it’s getting back in touch with young kids,” said Sears, whose own daughter is 58 years old.

The children gathered and listened to Sears read the story, well, mostly, including 3 and a half year old Caleb Meyer, who enjoyed story time while mother Melissa looked on. Caleb and his 7-year-old sibling are home schooled.

“This is an opportunity for the younger kids to interact,” Melissa said. “And the parents get to know each other, too.”

Finger painting was also on the agenda, but with the wind gusting up to 30 mph, that activity was prudently postponed.

Finally, everyone helped themselves to a healthy snack of raw fruits and vegetables. The snacks were popular, the waiting your turn, not so much. But with parental encouragement, the youngsters tried strawberries, broccoli, pineapple, kiwi, carrots, and even snap peas.

As for the children’s experience, Caleb Meyer gave the best testament to success a three year old could give when, before leaving, he declared, “I like it!”

The next sessions of Garden of the Mind are being held Thursdays, March 31 and April 7 at the Waikoloa Bookmobile next to the tennis courts.

Space is limited to the first 20 applicants. Ott and Moore are also looking for a musician to play guitar during the last session. For more information contact Ott at 833-9773.

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