Since building a large container garden at my daughter's charter school two years ago I've been involved in teaching kids how to prepare fresh produce as well as working with an organization that helps other teachers start gardens at their own schools.
School gardens expose children to healthy, locally grown food and can be used to teach all sorts of skills, including science, reading, math and art. But getting school gardens off the ground and maintaining them present a number of challenges. Not least of these is the fact that most schools are on vacation during the summer, the peak growing season in most areas of the country.
That's why I emphasize salad and other greens in the school gardening scheme. Cool weather crops such as leaf lettuce, arugula, mizuna, cress and mache can be planted in March or April and harvested before the school year is over. To those you can add radishes and carrots. The carrots might not be ready till fall. Or, in our case, you can plant carrots in the fall and be harvesting them in spring. Fall is a good time to plant a second round of salad.
Yesterday was our annual teacher workshop with D.C. Schoolyard Greening, the organization I work with. I presided over the salad clinic, where I gave my best pitch for growing salads and also passed along some of the lessons I've learned working with groups of children.
* Avoid taking large groups of children into the garden by yourself. Focus and control become issues when kids are released to the outdoors. I try to have at least one other adult with me, and work with two or three kids at a time planting seeds or harvesting. There need to be specific rules of behavior in the garden.
* Kids love harvesting and preparing vegetables. Planting seeds takes no more than a few minutes. But you can occupy children for hours turning lettuce into salad. They will fight for a chance to wash the lettuce and crank it dry in the salad spinner. I prefer to plant leaf lettuces rather than heading lettuces. Leaf lettuces grow fast, and they produce more leaves when you cut them.
* Teach kids basic kitchen safety. An important lesson is placing a kitchen towel under the cutting board to keep it from moving. An unstable cutting surface leads to injuries.
* Young children in my classes use plastic knives, which are good enough to cut things like carrots and radishes. But vegetables should lie flat for cutting. Chasing a radish around the cutting board is dangerous. Instead, cut it in half lengthwise to create a flat surface. It can then be sliced without moving. I usually slice carrots into sticks before giving them to children to cut into dice.
* Kids love working with simple tools. They will occupy themselves for hours with a vegetable peeler or a box grater. To peel a carrot, I teach them to work on one half of the carrot first, then flip the carrot around to peel the other half. This makes the work go faster and reduces the risk of fingertips getting cut.
* Making vinaigrette is a good way to teach fractions as well as the concept of an emulsion. A classic vinaigrette consists of three parts oil to one part vinegar. Here's a simple recipe for a honey-mustard vinaigrette:
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon honey
generous pinch coarse salt
pinch ground pepper
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
In a bowl, whisk together mustard, honey, salt, pepper and vinegar. Add a drop or two of olive oil and whisk vigorously until the olive oil is completely incorporated. Add remaining olive oil and whisk until vinaigrette is smooth and homogeneous. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed. If it seems too sharp, whisk in more olive oil.
Pass the bowl around so the kids can take turns using the whisk. They will not tire of it. Pretty soon you will have kids loving the salad they made themselves.