When the boys and girls at Bolingbrok’s John R. Tibbott Elementary School first planted vegetable seeds last spring, they were left to imagine what might grow in the school’s new Edible Garden during their summer vacation.
Now that they’ve returned to school they can see and touch the fresh produce in the garden and they can eat vegetables they’ve harvested during lunch breaks.
And principal Ana Wilson said the children are liking what they eat, too.
“We had a meet-and-greet for our parents—the entire school—two days before school started, just to get the kids in here, see where your classroom is, drop off supplies, and I invited families out to the garden,” Wilson said. “And there was a family out in the garden, and I happened to be out there.
“So, I was showing the kids how to open a pea pod. I figured they may as well interact with it. I offered them a chance to pop it in their mouth, which is something I had never done. And I did it first, just to make sure, ‘OK, are these really going to be edible or not?’
“And they actually were rather sweet. So, I knew the kids would like them if they gave it a try. Well, one of the children in the family was willing to do it. Then, the dad’s like, ‘Give me one.’ But the mom, at first, she was like, ‘You go ahead.’ Then, when she saw her child going, ‘Wow, this is good.’ She’s like, ‘Let me go ahead and try one.’
“So, it’s not just the children we need to win over. It’s also the adults.”
At John R. Tibbott Elementary School, Wilson has her staff teaching healthy lifestyle choices right along with the college prep program. And she’s learning that the boys and girls—from kindergarten through fifth grade—are getting a kick out of a hands-on approach to learning that also can be tied back into classroom books and activities.
“Well, there are certain things you have to learn through book learning,” Wilson said. “But this is an example of something you have to learn hands-on. Unless you actually dig a potato—to imagine yourself digging or pulling a carrot—you don’t feel it. You don’t experience it.
“There are some children who are much better at kinesthetic learning. And having an understanding of, maybe, how hard it is to pull a carrot out will give them some idea of engineering. We can lead them into some engineering device that makes pulling a carrot out easier and talk about leverage, which is something they work with when they study simple machines.
“Yeah, definitely this is something that is learning by doing. We had to model how to cut oregano. Our first-graders cut oregano today that will be used in the roasted vegetables that they’re having at lunch. It’s pretty cool.”
Tibbott’s Edible Garden measures 60x47 and sits on a plot behind the school building that once was just a grass field. Wilson was allotted $5,000 in pilot program funding from Valley View School District’s Food Service budget to get the ball rolling. She secured another $2,000 in a grant from Whole Foods.
Valley View district employees teamed with Wight & Company, Tibbott school personnel and community volunteers to build the garden last September.
Six raised garden boxes are spread around the perimeter of the garden, one for each grade level in the school. And there are handicap accessible trellis’ on each end, snap peas and pole beans growing up and down the lattice sides.
Tibbott students worked with their teachers to develop growing themes: kindergarten (herbs), first grade (salsa), second grade (pizza), third grade (salad), fourth grade (soup) and fifth grade (underground garden).
Tameling’s Landscape Supply donated organic soil and sold wood chips to the school district at a discounted rate. And, when it was finished, the Tibbott garden not only was a thing of beauty but also was quickly lauded by folks outside the world of education.
In Wilson’s office hangs a Best Partner Collaboration Award presented to Tibbott Elementary School by the Illinois Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council in November of 2012.
Why a garden? Wilson answers that question with a question of her own: Why not? And she is quick to point out gardening is a tool staff members can use to break down language barriers in a bilingual community.
“We’ve been discovering as it goes, from the planting process—which way to plant a garlic seed to start it out, how to plant our carrots,” she said. “We’ve learned through the process that we need to thin them out a bit because now we have some very unusual looking carrots that are growing.
“But that’s all part of the learning process and that’s what this is all about. You have identification of plants: Is is a weed? Is it not a weed? Is it the plant growing? Or do we pull that? All the way now through the harvesting. Oh, my goodness the delight they’re taking in opening up a pea pod for the very first time. Yes, the children—and the adults.
“They’ve opened pea pods and they’ve eaten them straight from the pod. And that’s an experience—you can’t go to the grocery store and be opening up pea pods. And, then handing what they’ve just harvested over to the food service department and seeing it appear in their vegetable choices for the day, it’s amazing.
“So far they’ve had the cherry tomatoes. Today, they were serving the lettuce the kids picked yesterday. That in and of itself is very empowering.
“But, then, for example, we had a garden committee meeting and the classroom teachers that were on that committee are starting to make the connections between the existing curriculum—our third-grade teacher who was out there in the garden with the kids yesterday was talking about how the kids would pull something out and they would go, ‘Oh, that’s the root. That’s the stem.’
“They just saw it in a textbook. Now, here was live. And they’re interacting with a plant they’re studying in a book.”