MAY 22, 2019 — One square foot of dirt sounds like a small amount of space, but children at Ray’s Child Care and Learning Center in the Mat-Su Valley are making the most of it. Children at the center are growing vegetables, herbs and flowers in their own one square-foot garden box.
“Children plant different types of seeds in their own little gardens, water daily, and watch their seeds grow,” said Natalie Ray, the founder and director of Ray’s. The children love to show off their plants and get excited about them, and that enthusiasm is shared by the parents.
“Parents think it’s wonderful,” Ray said. “Even if they don’t do it themselves, they want their kids to experience it.”
Ray has been doing “Farm to Early Care and Education (ECE)” long before it became popular. She’s added gardening to her lesson plans for over 30 years. Farm to ECE activities include gardening, purchasing local foods, and teaching kids about food and agriculture. Farm to ECE activities match many of the goals of child care providers, including providing hands-on learning, engaging parents and community, and developing life-long healthy habits.
In addition to the square-foot garden the children tend, Ray also planted a larger edible garden for them to explore. She includes plants that are culturally important to Alaska Native people and can be harvested in the wild, like raspberries and fireweed.
Ray takes advantage of Alaska’s Farm to School program through the Department of Natural Resources, Division of Agriculture. The Farm to School program provides Alaska-focused resources and grant opportunities that can help child care providers with their Farm to ECE experiences. Ray has received several grants to help build raised garden beds, buy child-size shovels for little kids to use in their gardens, and purchase a food dehydrator to dry some of their harvested produce.
Efforts to educate kids don’t just happen in the garden. Ray’s students also take field trips to local farms and host farmers in the classroom. Ray also ties in gardening and healthy foods into other lessons, including art and reading.
“Farm to ECE activities set up young children for a lifetime of healthy habits,” said Johanna Herron with the Alaska Division of Agriculture. “It helps kids develop an appreciation for local food; knowledge of good food choices; and a connection to their environment, land, and their community.”
When it’s time to harvest at Ray’s Child Care and Learning Center, the kids enjoy some vegetables right off the plants. They add other vegetables to their meals. Serving the harvest helps kids see the complete cycle of the garden, from the seed to the table.
Ray continues to expand the center’s Farm to ECE program by adding composting, hydroponic gardening during the winter season, and using fish fertilizer. Ray said she wants the kids attending her center to understand where food comes from, because knowing that can empower them to take care of their health.
For more information on the Division of Agriculture’s Farm to School program, check out their website at www.farmtoschoolalaska.org. Sign up for the program’s newsletter or call (907) 745-7200.