Summer Garden Invites Erie House Children to Participate in a Healthy, Active Lifestyle

July 22, 2016 | Chicago, IL

summer garden

Children enrolled in the school-age program at Erie House look at a squash blossom while working in a summer garden. FILE PHOTO

The thermometer climbs past 90 degrees on a July morning as children take turns spraying a hose in the playground outside of Erie Neighborhood House in Chicago’s West Town community. They’ll play in the water later, but right now they’re tending to a garden that teems with cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, habanero peppers, edamame and kale.

“I like watering the plants,” says Alan, a 7-year-old student. After handing the hose off to another child, Alan saunters over to a cucumber plant for a closer look. “The leaves feel different,” he observes, inviting others to touch the leaves’ prickly texture for themselves.

Alan and his peers are members of a garden club, one of a variety of activity-based groups from which children can choose this summer in the school-age program at Erie House.

The garden is spearheaded by the health and leadership program at Erie House, which receives funding from Chicago Community Trust, Aetna Foundation, Wrigley Foundation, Blue Cross Blue Shield of IL and the Herbalife Family Foundation. The summer project is intended to reinforce learning around nutrition and healthy lifestyles in the program’s year-round Super H initiative.

This summer, a team of graduate-level nursing students from DePaul University coordinates learning games and activities—in addition to maintenance of the garden—twice a week, and school-age staff member Maria Dillon supervises the students participating in the club.

Dillon, who admits she didn’t have much gardening experience prior to this year, says she enjoys observing the students engage with the variety of activities planned around the garden this summer. “They tend to gravitate toward the games,” she says, “but I think they also enjoy the process of watching (the produce) grow, change color, and, eventually, picking it.”

The children seem to have varying reasons for joining the gardening club. “I like the garden because we learn about plants,” says Yesenia, a 7-year-old student. She runs around the garden pointing out her favorite plants, most notably pumpkins and strawberries.

Alas strawberry season has passed, so she’s not able to offer any samples.

Brandon, also age 7, agrees with Yesenia on her preference for strawberries. “They’re sweet,” he explains with a smile as he remembers the last of the strawberries to be harvested in the garden.

He is also more candid about his motivation for joining this club. “My mom wants me to learn how to plant stuff so she doesn’t have to buy vegetables at the store,” he says. Brandon’s family doesn’t have a garden currently, but perhaps his participation in the garden club this summer will result in starting a home garden next spring.

Through the various activities conducted by the interns from DePaul, the children learn about ecology and the many factors that contribute to a healthy garden and environment. They studied earthworms earlier this week and discovered how the decomposers play a significant role in maintaining fertile soil. The week before, the students learned about birds’ contributions to plant growth and constructed bird feeders to place in a nearby tree.

Yesenia explains the process of making the feeders, which involved rolling up newspaper to serve as a foundation and then adding peanut butter and seeds to the exterior. When asked how the bird feeders worked, she bursts into laughter. “The squirrels ate it!”

Back in the garden, the children walk around the rows of vegetables to look at the progress that has taken place over the past week. A few cherry tomatoes appear close to harvest-ready, and a lone zucchini has taken form (little do they know there will be many more of those to come this summer).

As they proceed, the children express their preference or distaste for each of the items growing in the garden. Sometimes they are in agreement—all of them seem to favor strawberries—but other times the children express differing opinions. As it is harvested, they’ll have opportunities to taste the fruits and vegetables grown in the garden. They will also learn ways to utilize the produce to prepare different snacks and meals.

Dillon believes the summer garden program is making a tangible impact, and the students have had a lot of fun in the process. “It teaches them the importance of eating healthy and being active,” she says. “I think they enjoy it.”


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