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Gardening in Early Childhood Centres

The curriculum for the early childhood education in New Zealand takes a wholistic approach to the care and education  of babies and young children.  It encompasses four principles Empowerment or Whakamana; Holistic Development or Kotahitanga; Family and Community or Whānau Tangata and Relationships or Ngā Hononga.

Many early childhood centres already incorporate some gardening activities into their programme, recognising the opportunities it offers children to develop their fine and gross motor coordination, work cooperatively and learn to appreciate healthy food – to name just a few benefits.

If you are interested in incorporating gardening into the programme offered at your centre, but have little gardening experience yourself you may wish to read the page “Education and Training” which lists a lot of organisations that offer free or low cost ways to learn about organic growing. You may also want to read the “Health and Safety” page.

There may also be parents or grandparents of children at your centre who are experienced gardeners who would be happy to give you some advice.  Some parents may have particular knowledge of how to grow culturally important foods such as kumara or taro.

Organisations that support gardening in Early Childhood Centres:

Fruit Trees for Auckland

This group of volunteers is raising money so that they can supply fruit trees to Auckland schools and early childhood centres that request a tree as well as plant fruit trees on council owned land such as gass verges and teach people how to look after them.  If you would like a fruit tree for your early childhood centre (or a park adjacent to your centre) you can sign up at this link http://www.fruittrees.org.nz/signup-school/  or for one on the verge outside your  centre (or home) you can  register your interest at this link http://www.fruittrees.org.nz/signup/  For more information see http://www.fruittrees.org.nz/

Below are some suggestions to help with gardening in an early childhood centre:

*  Buy heritage seeds or seedlings, rather than modern hybrid seeds or seedlings grown from modern hybrids.  (See the Seed Saving page of this site for details.)  This will allow you to save seeds after each growing season (to replant the following year) and allow children to learn about the entire plant life cycle in a wholistic way.  (NB:  By joining the Koanga Institute (http://www.koanga.org.nz/) you can also gain access to rare varieties of heritage seed and your centre could potentially become a guardian for a particular variety of seed and share it with the families of the children who attend your centre, thus helping to save rare plant varieties.)

* If there is limited outdoor space at your centre, some plants will grow well in containers.  Parsley, silverbeet and kale are easy to grow in containers, as are tomatoes.  Broad beans [see note at bottom of this page] are also easy to grow and kindergarten aged children enjoy eating the raw beans directly from their shells. (If you grow basil and marigolds (tagetes species, not calendula) with tomatoes, you not only have basil available for use in salads or cooking but your tomato plants will be healthier.)

Strawberries grow well in containers and are a favourite of children.  They are easy to grow.  (The only disease that they are prone to is a fungus called botyris cineria.  This can be a problem in humid weather.  It can be controlIed by weeding around plants to improve air flow if they are overgrown and picking off any dying flowers or fruit that show signs of mould and destroying them by burning or disposing in garbage (not in the compost.)  Strawberries are one of the most highly sprayed fruit in NZ and can contain higher residues than many other fruits, so growing them at an ECE centre is a good way to encourage people to grow their own.

Another option for centres with limited space is to place containers or raised beds close to fences and plant vegetables or fruit that will climb up the fence (or trellis or chicken wire or plastic webbing attached to the fence.)   Passionfruit will grow well in a sunny location.  Cucumbers can be induced to grow up a chain link fence or a piece of chickenwire that has been attached to an existing fence by positioning the vines against the fence.  The plant’s tendrils will then grip the wires and it will support itself against the fence.  Climbing beans such as “scarlet runner” and peas will also appreciate being positioned close to a fence.

*  A worm farm can produceed useful fertiliser for centre gardens, as well as being an opportunity for children to learn about the importance of worms in creating healthy soil. It can also reduce centre rubbish disposal costs. These generally need to be positioned in the shade; at least in summer as the worms will die if they get too hot. (See the “Compost” page for more information about worm farms.)

Special Health and Safety Considerations for Early Childhood Centres

NB:  Please read the general Health and Safety page of this site at this link  in addition to this section.

*  When deciding about which plants to grow where, take into account the needs of the plants and the age of the children at your centre. In an area in which there are babies under two years of age you may want to exclude plants that have fruit that are small enough to pose a choking hazard if they fall to the ground prematurely or simply produce small fruit such as berries.  Leafy crops such as lettuce, silver beet and kale and root crops such as carrots and beet root [see note at bottom of this page] may be a better choice for an under-twos garden.

* Some brands of potting mix contain moisture retaining crystals which resemble very firm lumps of jelly when they are hydrated.  Such potting mixes should be avoided when gardening with children  under the age of two – or older children who have developmental delays or do not speak sufficient English to understand that these lumps of jelly are not edible.

*  Some parts of some food plants are poisonous. Potato leaves contain toxic alkaloids, for example.  Rhubarb leaves contain toxic levels of oxalic acid.  Both taro leaves and roots of taro are poisonous (due to their high oxalate content) when they are raw; it is necessary to boil them (and discard the water in which they have been cooked) to render them edible. (The edible taro is Colocasia esculenta:  other varieties of taro such as the popular black taro are not edible.)

* When gardening in containers, care needs to be taken when choosing containers to select those that cannot be tipped over. Large containers can be extremely heavy when filled with soil and plants so care needs to be taken that they are in an appropriate position before gardening begins.

* Eating sufficient quantities of beet root may cause urine to become slightly pink.  It may be a good idea to let parents know when beet root is on the menu and that it may cause this harmless effect in case they are unaware that this can occur and worry that their child may have a urinary tract infection.

*  In a small minority of people, consumption of broad beans (Vicia faba –also known as Fava beans) may cause orange urine.  This is due to compounds in the beans causing destruction of red blood cells and subsequent excretion of components of red blood cells in the urine.  This occurs in people who have the rare genetic disease G-6PD.  Anyone who has this symptom after eating  broad beans should not eat them any more. G-6PD can be diagnosed with a blood test. It is worthwhile knowing that this condition exists since people who have G-6PD are at risk of having adverse reactions to pharmacueticals and cannot tolerate high doses of vitamin C – although normal amounts of vitamin C in foods are not a problem.

Broad beans also contain tyramine which means that they should not be taken by anyone who is taking any drug which inhibits the activity of the enzyme monoamine oxidase (These drugs are known as MAOI drugs).  (Children are prescribed MAOI drugs only very rarely and their parents are generally given a list of foods that they need to avoid.) (See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vicia_faba )

Categories: Gardening in Early Childhood Centres

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