Growing Kids’ Enthusiasm for Nature

Peoria, IL | November 2011 | By National Recreation and Park Association

Growing Kids Enthusiasm for Nature 410

Peoria’s youth gardening program is part of the city’s Park District. The youth gardens are located at two sites — the Proctor Recreation Center and the Logan Recreation Center. The latter is next to a private Lutheran K-8 school where the Park District also has a youth garden that operates in tandem with the Logan garden. The program is geared to children ages 6 to 13. The children at both the Proctor and the Logan/Lutheran program are predominantly African-American or Latino and from low-income households. The Logan/Lutheran program has a more diverse population from slightly more affluent households.

Youth gardening at the Proctor Center has been going on for at least five years. Bob Streitmatter, Park District Garden Manager and Luthy Botanical Garden Director, explained that the NRPA grant enabled the program to enrich the soil at the Logan garden, purchase better tools and other supplies, and plant grapes and other fruit crops. The grant was also used to start a raised-bed garden at the Lutheran school site that includes vegetables, herbs, some theme beds, an old-fashioned flower garden, a native habitat garden with prairie grasses, and eventually an orchard and other fruit crops. Gardening has become well-integrated into the summer day-camp and after-school programs that operate at both the Logan and Proctor recreation centers and at the Lutheran school when it is in session. The garden serves 70 to 80 children in the Proctor Recreation Center’s summer day-camps and about 30 to 40 at the Logan/Lutheran gardens. When school is back in session, the number increases to 100 to 150 children from the after-school program and the Lutheran school.

The program’s objectives are for the children to become more in touch with nature and the outdoors, learn basic gardening skills so that they can plant their own gardens at home, and improve their nutrition. Both sites are in low-income neighborhoods. Because the nearest grocery stores are miles away, the children have limited access to fresh produce. Although the gardening program cannot change that fact, Mr. Streitmatter stated that, “… what we can do here is to change the individuals, how they react to it [living in a food desert].”

At the Proctor garden, Mr. Streitmatter, the Botanical Garden staff, and the recreation center staff operate the program activities. At Logan/Lutheran, a local nonprofit called Gifts in the Moment and recreation center staff run the program with some teacher involvement. Both sites have a nutrition education component. The summer camp at the Proctor Recreation Center includes an academic component to minimize the loss in learning over the summer months. Gardening and nutrition have been integrated into the camp curriculum.

Mr. Streitmatter indicated that sustainability of the gardens will come primarily from the internal and external partnerships he has developed. The Park District will continue to support the garden at the Proctor Recreation Center, especially since it is a large, active community center that is heavily used by the surrounding neighborhoods. In addition, both sites receive plants from the Park District’s Botanical Garden. Parents and teachers at the Lutheran school have been enthusiastic about and supportive of the program and have been actively involved in gardening with the children. A partnership between the gardening program and Gifts in the Moment promotes nature education at local public and private schools. The goal of the training is to integrate nature studies into the full academic curriculum. Dietetic interns from Bradley University and the Order of St. Francis Hospital, both of which are in Peoria, have provided the nutrition education component at both sites.

Mr. Streitmatter and other Park District staff have noticed fear and apprehension on the part of some of the children about being outside and working in the dirt. They have observed what has come to be called Nature Deficit Disorder in about 5% to10% of the kids. Mr. Streitmatter and the recreation center staff have observed that children seem to feel less fearful and more comfortable outside as their time in the garden increases. The children have also been enthusiastic about trying new vegetables and fruits that they’ve never before eaten. Mr. Streitmatter related a story about a little girl at one of the sites who was unfamiliar with cabbage. When she found out that coleslaw is made from cabbage, “[she said] she likes coleslaw. She told me she likes to dip her French fries in her coleslaw. So we are sort of making a difference one French fry at a time!”