Friendly Avenue Christian Preschool will serve as demo site for child care in N.C.
Article by Alice Owens, a freelance writer and photographer who lives in High Point.
Kids love to play in the dirt, but many are disconnected from nature, plugging into computers, smartphones and tablets.
They’re losing their love for dirt and connection.
Friendly Avenue Christian Preschool wants to get youngsters back in the dirt through a partnership with Shape NC.
Shape NC, supported by Blue Cross Blue Shield, aims to boost the number of young children who start kindergarten at a healthy weight.
The interdisciplinary initiative brings together leading experts in early childhood education, nutrition, physical activity and landscape design to create 18 model child care centers across North Carolina.
From those 18 model centers, six were chosen as demonstration sites where other child care (centers) can see how the program works. Friendly Avenue Christian Preschool was named one of the six demo sites on June 19.
“It’s a really big deal to be a demonstration site,” said Sandy Johnson, preschool director.
The preschool boasts large outdoor spaces with blackberries, strawberries, blueberries and pears. The garden also offers tomatoes, cucumbers, spinach, lettuce, squash and a large herb garden.
In addition to the edible garden, there’s a fairy garden where children sit among the trees, read books, dig in the dirt and let their imaginations run wild.
“We were designed to care for nature and to be in nature,” Johnson said.
Preschoolers buzz around the outdoor space, water plants, harvest crops and even plant trees. The teachers coach and assist, but the children are heavily involved in the actual work of planting and tending the garden.
“In the garden, every aspect (of education) is happening–reading, math and social development,” said Trish Nelson, who works with the Smart Start agency in partnership with Friendly Avenue Christian Preschool and has administered the Shape NC grant money since 2011.
Children must read, measure and count when planting, Nelson said.
“This is a whole new way of viewing childhood–a more holistic approach,” said Nelson.
Johnson said a grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield in 2011 helped them change their environment. First, they transformed the outdoor space. Then, with grant money and funds raised, they created the new “classroom,” trained the staff, got technical support and landscaped the area.
Professional development helped the staff branch out from a traditional preschool structure.
“We are designed to be active learners, not to sit and have information uploaded to us all day,” Johnson said.
Children at Friendly Avenue Christian Preschool are ensured 120 minutes of movement each day and never sit for more than 14 minutes at a time. Screen time is limited and only available to the older children who will need to use it for elementary school.
When learning about trees, the students designed benches and seats for the classroom. Parents made the benches, which are used daily in the classroom.
“It’s not all about the garden,” Johnson said. “It’s also about bringing outdoor elements indoors and providing an atmosphere that promotes health.”
Kids learn about nutrition, too. Each meal and snack are served “family style,” and the children set the table, put food on the table and serve themselves, choosing foods and how much of each to eat.
“This helps teach them to learn when they are full and to read hunger cues, skills that many adults never learned,” Johnson said.
Much of the food the children eats comes directly from the garden that they planted. Families are given new, healthy recipes to try and are given herbs to use in those recipes. The goal is to help the families learn new ways to cook and enjoy food that will result in better health.
“One father told me he took his child to the grocery store and couldn’t get his son out of the produce aisle. This is our greatest success story,” Johnson said.