MSU researchers honored for preschool learning garden projectTuesday, May 3, 2016
By: Vanessa Beeson
Mississippi State researchers are being recognized for efforts to tackle childhood obesity through a new comprehensive prevention program.
Assistant professors Julie Parker and Lori Elmore-Staton of the university's School of Human Sciences also are scientists at the campus-based Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station.
Their program is designed to educate teachers, students and parents on how gardening may be used to help foster healthy-eating habits. It includes a garden at the MSU Child Development and Family Studies Center, along with vertical garden structures at the College of Education's Aiken Village Preschool.
The project has resulted in a manual titled "Watch Us Grow: From Seeds to Standards," a step-by-step guide for early childhood educators interested in using a school garden to create an experiential outdoor learning environment.
The project recently placed second in the Southeastern Early Childhood Association's Exemplary Outdoor Classroom Contest and was entered in a category titled "Creating an Outdoor Classroom on a Shoestring Budget."
By participating in structured curricula centered on the garden, children in the project have been immersed in an outdoor-learning environment that goes beyond teaching basic gardening skills. In addition to covering science, mathematics, art, music, physical education and literacy, they have been given continuing opportunities to enhance social and emotional skills.
"The goal was to create a space where children learned about planting, nurturing and harvesting fruits and vegetables while participating in other educational activities integrated into the environment," Parker explained.
She said previous research has "demonstrated that young children learned best when they were allowed to be active participants in learning. We also know that children who have participated in planting and maintaining school gardens have been found to select and consume more nutritional foods."
In Mississippi, childhood obesity long has been a serious problem that often carries into adulthood.
According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control data, one in eight U.S. preschoolers is considered obese. This compares to a report by the Mississippi Department of Education's Office of Healthy Schools that found a third of three- and four-year-olds and half of five-year-olds in state Head Start programs are considered obese or overweight.
In developing a small-budget school garden, Parker and Elmore-Staton joined with professionals at the child development center and assistant professor Elizabeth Payne of the MSU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' landscape architecture department. Recycled and donated materials were used to make the gardening structures and fencing.
"We used PVC pipe to build a structure for strawberry vines at the front walkway," Parker said, adding that "the hanging strawberries proved enticing for little hands to harvest."
Beyond learning "that strawberries grow on a vine," she said the children came to appreciate "food origins and the benefits of eating healthy fruits." Older participants often "adopted" plants as they drew illustrations and recorded details in a gardening journal, she said.
At harvest time, the MSU team tried to be both creative and adventurous.
"We tried to teach parents innovative ways to use fresh fruits and vegetables, so we conducted a few taste tests," Elmore-Staton said. "We prepared zucchini chips that tasted like potato chips and cooked spaghetti using spaghetti squash instead of traditional pasta."
"We even whipped up cauliflower mashed potatoes, which the kids liked so much that it is now on the center's regular menu," she continued. "The taste tests also were learning experiences as the children graphed charts of foods they enjoyed the most and the least."
In developing their project, the MSU researchers collected nearly 100 surveys from early childhood educators across Alabama, Mississippi and Texas to assess perceptions about creation of a school garden. They also organized parent-teacher focus groups to determine ways to improve the program.
Their campus collaborators included assistant professors Gaea Hock of the School of Human Sciences, Elizabeth Payne of the Department of Landscape Architecture and Jacob Gines of the College of Architecture Art and Design, along with Aiken school director Carol Jones.
In addition to the MAFES and the School of Human Sciences, campus assistance was provided by the MSU Extension Service and Office of Research and Economic Development, along with the Michigan-based W.K. Kellogg Foundation.