Kindergarten students at Growing Place learn about gardening through Fairchild Challenge

Two kindergarteners watering the plants inside the garden at The Growing Place.
Two kindergarteners watering the plants inside the garden at The Growing Place. Miami Herald Staff

It’s never too early to start learning about a garden. The kindergarten students at The Growing Place certainly know that.

Kindergartners at the early childhood center, 536 Coral Way in Coral Gables, get to interact directly with nature through a butterfly and vegetable garden located at the school’s playground.

“Having an actual garden allows for a hands-on learning experience,” said Corina Dekker, director of The Growing Place. “I think it makes learning a lot more meaningful.”

The Fairchild Challenge was created in 2002. The program’s main objective is to encourage students to value nature and experience it directly through experiments and assignments. It currently involves more than 130,000 students of elementary, middle and high schools around Miami-Dade and Broward County.

The Growing Place Early Childhood Center is a Christian child-care center that serves kids from 1 year old to kindergarteners. The center participates in the Fairchild Challenge with its garden, which was started eight years ago by Mary Cardentey, a kindergarten teacher at The Growing Place.

The garden has been available since for kindergarten students of the center to learn, explore and observe its changes, by maintaining it and watering it daily.

“These kids are gonna grow up to be voters, decision makers, consumers, and how would they have any idea how to protect the environment if they’ve never had a personal connection or experience to the environment?” said Alison Walker, Fairchild Youth Education Manager. “This is why we do what we do, and this is my favorite thing about my entire job.”

The children are taught the process of planting, watering and growing different plants and vegetables, as well as how to care for a garden as a whole.

The garden at The Growing Place is bordered in a white picket fence, where only the students from Cardentey’s class are allowed to enter. Inside, it has a variety of plants and vegetables for the children to observe and pick, upon instruction from their teacher. Onions, cabbage, tomato plants and sweet potatoes are planted and available for seasonal picking, within other vegetables.

Garden snakes, lizards, caterpillars and ladybugs can be found within the garden — but mostly butterflies, which lay eggs on certain plants. The Corky Stem Passion Flower vine, for example, is the host plant for the zebra longwing and the Julia butterflies.

“Each butterfly species goes to a certain plant or group of plants, and they won’t lay their eggs in any place other than the host plant,” said Brother Milledge, who works with the Tropical Audubon Society. “You have to plant the host plants in order to have the butterflies stay here and lay eggs.”

In class, Cardentey discusses with the students what they saw in the garden that day. They draw pictures of the plants, insects and animals. They also make scrapbooks and do various activities like cooking and baking with various vegetables.

During the school year, they take various field trips to the Everglades, the beach and to Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.

Through learning from the garden and outdoor-related activities, Cardentey sees a difference in the students’ engagement with nature.

“They want to go home and eat more vegetables. They want to go home and start a new garden. They like to do art and paint things with nature,” Cardentey said. “It makes the kids more engaged to learning, and they want to learn because they are hands-on with nature.”

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