By Deb Silverthorn
Digging through the dirt, feeling the slime of earthworms as they crawl up the arm of a 4-year-old and tasting the fresh first cut from a pepper plant, the children of Temple Emanu-El Preschool, through their Gan Shalom Chai science and garden centers, take it all in.
Committed to connecting children to G-d through nature, the preschool has 230 little gardeners who make their way through the Gan at least once a week. From the earliest toddlers to the pre-kindergarten students, age-appropriate activities and curriculum provide lessons in ecology, gardening, nutrition, animal science and more.
“There is so much value in being a part of our outside world and, even for our youngest students, the environment provides connection to nature and G-d’s world,” said Heidi Kutchin, the preschool’s science and garden educator since 2006. “You never know from day to day, even with a planned curriculum, what might happen and there is nothing more wondrous than children learning they are a partner with everything around them.
“Learning to put others’ needs — whether the ‘other’ is a plant, animal or friend — ahead of themselves is a life lesson,” said Kutchin of the program, which is funded through the proceeds of a hot lunch project, donations and Temple Emanu-El’s preschool budget. “Our program, with all of its richness, teaches the compassion that our tradition teaches.”
“All Jewish children learn to sing blessings before eating that praise the Creator, but do they have the chance to appreciate and praise the Creator’s Creation?” said Temple Emanu-El’s Rabbi Adam Allenberg, director of congregational learning. “In order to develop a mind and a heart that stand in awe of God’s Creation, children — and adults — must have the chance to explore and interact with it.
“We are helping to raise our children with an awareness of the cycles of the earth and a calling to be shomrei adamah,” Rabbi Allenberg said. “We are guardians of the earth and all of its bounty.”
Animals, including rabbits, a chinchilla, a bearded dragon, turtles and a Chinese water dragon, provide opportunities for caring and compassion. Each week, the student responsible for bringing in the class snacks must also research and provide snacks appropriate for that class’ animal.
The Gan provides hands-on experiences in tikkun olam, repairing the world, while exploring and practicing the principles of bal tashchit, which prohibits being wasteful or unnecessarily destructive. Composting is something each class participates in, with the children collecting organic waste from snack and lunchtime to bring to the Gan’s compost bin.
“Heidi is incredible in how she interacts with the kids, always tying together learning about nature with our learning as Jews,” said teacher Alisa Sureck, noting that feeding “Bubbles,” the bunny, is a highlight of her children’s week. “Every week is something new, from upkeep to picking ingredients for a salad, pulling a piece from the broccoli plant and eating it on-site.”
“The impact of the Gan on the children with regard to how they care for the earth, its creatures, and themselves, is lasting,” said Kim Pariza, the mother of 5-year-old Chase, as well as former Temple Emanu-El preschoolers, Hannah and Sterling. “While [I was] visiting the garden at my daughter’s school, she told me that the worms were good because they aerate the soil. This she remembered two years after leaving Temple.
“We found a toad and Chase brought him to school. We now have a garden at home and the kids eat what they plant,” Pariza said.
“I like to pick the weeds from the Gan so that it will be healthy,” Chase Pariza said. “It’s cool because you can do a lot of stuff there. My favorite animal is ‘Spicy’ the bearded dragon and I love to feed him crickets.”
“The Gan was the reason we chose to send our son to Temple. It sealed the deal,” said Jane Larkin, the mother of Sammy. “He was almost 2 years old and the idea that he could be a part of this beautiful oasis, learning to love nature and to care for the earth, while understanding the concepts of tikkun olam — that’s what we wanted for him.”
“I love a lot of nature and there are a lot of things we could learn and do in our houses too. We planted carrots at home because they’re my favorite.” Sammy Larkin said. “At school, I also liked seeing the real ladybug larva; I think it was yellowish and blackish.”
For the Larkin family, the Gan is an extension of their own home gardening where they compost, plant and harvest. “You can’t have a good harvest, like during Sukkot, without composting,” said Larkin, whose husband Cameron was a guest in Sammy’s class, bringing in the family’s tools.
“The kids try eating things that most kids would never eat,” Larkin said, noting that the children made pesto from the garden’s kale plants. “Last summer, Sammy asked me to buy purple peppers, ‘just like the ones we planted,’ he told me.”
“The children are involved in an array of sensory experiences through the Gan and the program finds its way into much of the curriculum,” said Shelley Sender, director of early childhood education at Temple Emanu-El. “They are digging, planting and then cooking with what they grow, and they are painting from the pigment of the flowers. They learn about same and opposite, feeling the furry and scaly or spiked friends.
“The interaction, the responsibility and the depth of language skills that we see growing are so exciting,” Sender said. “We have explosions of vocabulary as the year goes on and it’s really very powerful.”
Throughout the Jewish calendar, the Gan and the preschool staff use nature to re-energize their holiday curriculum. Dipping their apple slices in honey at Rosh Hashanah, the kids make a direct connection to the bees they saw pollinating the Gan’s flowers. A visit by local beekeepers, with their product in tow, was just one of many hands-on memories for the children.
As the Gan’s pomegranates ripened, the children learned how the 613 seeds represent the 613 commandments and at Yom Kippur, the students observed tashlich at their waterfall. On Sukkot, the children celebrated in their garden sukkah, decorated with fresh herbs and branches. During Simchat Torah, they learned that rimon, which means pomegranate, is also the name for the crown on the Torah.
In the next year, the Gan will add an earth oven, one that cooks by the heat of the sun, and children will prepare pita pizzas and challah from the wheat that they grow.
“This generation is experiencing a nature deficit disorder and they need the opportunity to connect with the outdoors,” Sender said. “Life is just too sterile and kids need to be digging in the dirt!”