The fall season has arrived! Farm Sprouts provides children with a unique opportunity to call 16o acres of farm, field, forest, and pond their classroom over the course of eight weeks. Some children will be entering their fifth or six seasons of Farm Sprouts, children and families we’ve now known for years since our first pilot season back in the spring of 2016. MSU Tollgate Farm has a way of helping both young and old to grow in self-confidence and self-worth, to feel a sense of purpose, place, and belonging. It connects people to the past, through the rich history of the site, and to present concerns, such as supporting the healthy development of the next generation of the stewards of our Earth.
During our very first week, we have already seen new friendships form, old friends unite, and have connected to others who work on the farm. For example, one group greeted Garrett, our resident floriculture researcher, as he walked to and from the greenhouse. Another waved to our Will, our Sustainable Agriculture Instructor, busy weeding in the C.S.A. field while we passed by on the wagon. Yet another group spotted Nicole, our Animal Care Coordinator, as she strolled toward us swinging a red basket. We peeked inside and discovered around ten multi-colored eggs, collected fresh from the coop. Another worked alongside a group of volunteers, busy harvesting crops to be donated to Forgotten Harvest. One of the volunteers kindly shared beans with us, enough for each child to munch one “green snake,” coined as such because they were very long and curvy beans. At one point a group waved at John and Kurt, maple sugaring volunteers, as they drove by on a Gator, already hard at work preparing for the next season.
It is the people and their interactions with each other and this place, formed as a result of the history of the site and most importantly, the time people dedicate to learning and caring for it, which make Tollgate special, just as each community, each school, each team and each person is special in its own variety of ways. Farm Sprouts will have the opportunity to discover, if they don’t know already, more on what makes Tollgate special in the coming weeks. We do hope you take what you learn and what your child experiences out into the world with you, so the learning continues beyond the white farm fence and that we all find ways to support others in connecting to inspiring people out in the community, to nature, and to the sources of their food, whether in their own backyards, a small garden patio, a nearby park, or the farmer’s market. All children have a right to such experiences as a part of their childhoods!
Farm Sprouts always vote and sign in as a part of their arrival. This week they voted for butterflies or ants. We had both in our classroom, or at least we had two Monarch chrysalis’ and a very fat, striped Monarch caterpillar. Our ants are harvester ants and like the caterpillars, have been very busy eating and working to form their home, in the case of the ants, new tunnels in their ant farm home. Farm Sprouts made their personal mark on their journals, which we’ll use to document discoveries, ideas, and thinking in the weeks to come. The classroom is quite bare at the beginning of the season, but by the end, the children’s voices and learning will be quite prominent. We invite families in during our last day to celebrate our learning with a wagon ride and tour of the classroom.
We gathered as a group to get to know each other and to begin establishing our learning community. We shared our thoughts and feelings spurred by being apart from our families and trying something new. We realized we have a lot in common when it comes to the emotions we feel when encountered with such experiences.
During our Invitations to Play, Explore, and Experiment in our outdoor classroom space, we used our senses to explore different animal furs and our ideas about why animals have fur and why their furs are different from one species to the next. Farm Sprouts created seed collages, working with a variety of seeds to create patterns and the letters of their names as we work to get to know one another. They also built “small world farms,” which involved a wide variety of tools and materials, including straw, hay, sand, soil, water, animals, rakes, scissors, and more. Some worked collaboratively and others chose to work independently. There were a very wide variety of approaches to navigating this task!
We then loaded up on the wagon to tour the farm. Before heading out, we inspected a large map of the farm. We captured a sense of what Farm Sprouts know about maps and what stood out to them. Then it was time to see the farm for ourselves! We noted that the leaves on the trees in our forest are green. We’ll be observing what happens to the color in the coming weeks. We stopped at the Educational Garden to harvest our snack. In the garden, we spotted sunflowers that seemed as tall as skyscrapers, pumpkins of all shapes and sizes, some green and others already orange, squash, zucchini, flowers, butterflies, and more. We harvested all sorts of veggies, including tomatoes, onions, and peppers.
We returned to our classroom space to wash up, both our hands and our veggies, and to sit down to enjoy the fruits of our labor… together. We spent time getting to know our veggies, remembering where and how they grew, and learning how they feel, look, smell, and taste. We also listened to the sounds they made when we bit into them. We encouraged Farm Sprouts to simply give their veggie a lick if they weren’t sure about eating it. Some were surprised they liked the fresh farm veggies! Hooray for harvesting!
Through our program, we have quite a few mantras, one of which states: Never stop asking questions! We end each season cheering this mantra and tell Farm Sprouts moving on from us to promise to never stop being curious. Therefore, questioning is an important skill we develop and in the fall, we begin with the question, “How do plants and animals prepare for winter?” How we explore that question depends on the interests of the children. We note what they find fascinating, document their questions, and then build driving questions to support the investigation of our big overarching question throughout the season. As teachers, we research questions of our own through our work and openly admit to not having all of the answers to the children’s questions. We believe there is always more to learn and that there is great joy to be had in learning together. Stay tuned to find out which direction our learning heads this fall!