Children and Nature School Gardens

Green Thumbs Camp: August 2015

When it comes to summer camp, pictures speak better than words.  The photos below illustrate our wonderful week in the Charlotte Central School gardens and an amazing field trip to Philo Ridge Farm right across the street from the school.  Thank you to my teaching partner Stacy Carter and our assistant Carter, Deirdre Holmes and Abby Foulk for their work in the CCS gardens and compost shed, Charlotte Recreation for administering the camp, Vera Simon-Nobes for welcoming us to Philo Ridge Farm, and all our awesome campers!

Making quick work of a big weeding chore (it helped that we had a "longest root" contest)
Making quick work of a big weeding chore (it helped that we had a “longest root” contest)
Collecting seeds for our Seed Savers envelopes
Collecting seeds for our Seed Savers envelopes
Garden journaling and herb pot painting
Garden journaling and herb pot painting
Our Rainbow Salad Bar - all grown in the school garden!!
Our Rainbow Salad Bar – all grown in the school garden!!
Digging for potatoes - our garden's buried treasure
Digging for potatoes – our garden’s buried treasure
Garden-grown, camper-harvested roasted root veggies: striped beets, rainbow carrots, and purple & white potatoes!
Garden-grown, camper-harvested roasted root veggies: striped beets, rainbow carrots, and purple & white potatoes!
A walking field trip.  Look: our school is right across the road from Philo Ridge Farm!
A walking field trip. Look: our school is right across the road from Philo Ridge Farm!
Observing Philo Ridge Farm Sheep
Observing Philo Ridge Farm Sheep
Meeting Stewart Little (the sheep)
Meeting Stewart Little (the sheep)
Collecting Philo Ridge Farm duck eggs
Collecting Philo Ridge Farm duck eggs
When at garden camp, never forget to water the campers
When at garden camp, never forget to keep the campers well watered
Journaling in the garden
Journaling in the garden
Children and Nature School Gardens

Green Thumbs Camp, June 2015

What a week!  Our small but sweet group did a lot of garden work, found plenty of time to play, and made detailed garden journal entires, seed bombs, beautiful painted pots, and delicious snacks along the way.  Check out some images from the week:

Many hands make light work when it comes to moving a big pile of compost.
Many hands make light work when it comes to moving a big pile of compost.
A lovely visit to Philo Ridge Farm.  How lucky to have our school so close to a farm (see it across the road?).
A lovely visit to Philo Ridge Farm. How lucky to have our school so close to a farm (see the school across the road?).
After calculating how much pig food we needed and weighing it out using a scale, we're off to feed the pigs!
After calculating how much pig food we needed and weighing it out using a scale, we’re off to feed the pigs!
Examining pig slop.
Examining pig slop.
It's good to water plants, but it's especially fun to water campers.
It’s good to water plants, but it’s especially fun to water campers.

Want to learn more about gardening with children?  Check out these Tips for Gardening with Kids and this post about the importance of spending time outside.

Children and Nature

No Child Left Inside

The following article was published in the most recent edition of the Charlotte News:


By: Tai Dinnan Contributor

April 09, 2015

IMG_2515 copyNature Deficit Disorder. Leave No Child Inside. De-natured Childhood. Free Range Kids. What is your reaction to these phrases and slogans?

Experts agree: children (and adults) are spending less time outside. Screen time is on the rise, after-school and weekend time is increasingly structured, and many families lack access to outdoor spaces that feel safe and fun. For me, and the children’s programs I run, the phrases above provide a framework to justify a focus on outdoor play. These new terms, and their emphasis on the importance of getting children out into nature, are backed up with rigorous research. It turns out children need to play, adventure, relax, work and learn in natural spaces to develop into healthy, whole adults.

IMG_9870Though physical health is one of the most obvious benefits of playing outdoors, the more subtle benefits add up into a very long list: improved cognitive functioning and development, increased self esteem, more motivation, improved problem solving, encouragement of inventiveness and creativity, cooperation, increased attention spans, and psychological well-being.

Luckily, Charlotters have access to remarkable outdoor spaces. Most have large yards where children can play safely within shouting range of the house. A garden, wetland, stream, field and forest border our school. Mt. Philo State Park offers family-friendly hiking and picnicking opportunities. The shores of Lake Champlain offer endless treasure hunting, exploring and swimming opportunities. And don’t forget public and backyard gardens and farms to tend and visit!

IMG_2914Gardens, in fact, provide children with a surprising multitude of opportunities to work, learn and play in nature. School gardens draw classrooms outside for hands-on learning and community service. Vegetable gardens at home give families an opportunity to work together to grow and share nourishing food. Gardens are beautiful, lush miniature ecosystems. They can be just the right scale for children to discover the magic of life cycles, ecosystems, patterns, colors, teamwork, artistry, engineering challenges, flavors and smells. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The school gardens at Charlotte Central School have been expanding. Nestled between the Pease Mountain trailhead and the lower parking lot, the CCS Kitchen Garden is home to raised beds, a perennial herb garden, pumpkin and potato patches, the school’s compost shed and an outdoor classroom. It is a truly lush, colorful, buzzing and delicious place to be—especially in the summer.

IMG_2499When planning summer vacation, families should remember to include plenty of free time outside. For parents who work, make sure to select summer programs that encourage free play, outdoor expeditions, opportunities to garden and plenty of running around. Consider where you get your food: visiting a local farm or signing up for a CSA can be a great way to get outside as a family and connect with the source of your food. The best part of committing to increased time outside for your children? You can join them and enjoy the benefits to your physical and emotional health as well!

Tai Dinnan lives in Charlotte and is the director of the Extended Day Programming and the Turtle Lane Art and Nature Camp at Lake Champlain Waldorf School in Shelburne. She also works with Stacy Carter to run the Charlotte Green Thumbs Summer Camp—a daytime gardening camp for kids in late-June and early-August. For more information about the camp, email Tai blogs at

Learn more about each of the camps I’m running this summer:



Children and Nature School Gardens

2015 Summer Camps!

As snow accumulates and chilly temperatures brighten our cheeks, I’m dreaming of summer in Vermont.  This year I’ll be running two camps: Green Thumbs Summer Camp and Turtle Lane Art and Nature Camp.  Check out the camp posters, visit our websites, save the dates, and help spread the word to families who live in the Charlotte/Shelburne area!

TLCamp_PosterCheck out the camp website and the camp brochure for more information.


Register through Charlotte Recreation.

Get Involved! Musings

Empowering Farm to Cafeteria

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend this past weekend’s 6th annual National Farm to Cafeteria Conference.  Burlington has been a hot spot for amazing local food and food systems thinking this summer, and I’ve loved being nearby to take advantage.  I’ve had a great summer vacation; this conference was the perfect way to consider which next professional steps to pursue.

In an effort to process and absorb all of the information I’ve heard this weekend, I’ve listed some of the resources and highlights below:

-Vermont Congressmen: WOW,  our senators and representatives are doing really good work!  All made appearances over the course of the weekend and they totally get it.  I’m pretty sure that most of the things Bernie said could get him kicked out of office in most states, but in Vermont he got standing ovations.  Those of us working to promote farm to cafeteria work are lucky to have Sanders, Welch, and Leahy in Washington.  Chellie Pingree from Maine is equally impressive.  It’s nice to feel excited about some of the work being done by our federal government!

Burlington and/or Vermont can be a model: With support for local food sourcing at all levels of the school and political bureaucracies, towns and cities in Vermont can and should become models for others working to increase farm purchasing.  Our smaller scale makes it easier to test things out, and our citizens still cherish our agricultural roots and value family farmers.  Producing, sourcing, processing, training, education, and paying for local healthy food can be perfected here, and then expanded across the country.  In Burlington, Superintendent Jeannie Collins and Food Service Director Doug Davis (my cafeteria man in Charlotte from elementary school years) are visionary role models.  Chuck Ross and Ellen Kahler’s work at the state level will support on the ground work.

Shelburne Farms is doing great farm based education work and I’m psyched I can tell out-of-state admirers that I attended summer camp there as a kid.

-The farm to cafeteria network is expanding.  This year there were over 800 attendees from across the nation.  Everyone I spoke to was doing real on-the-ground work that was making a difference in their community or region.  Everyone had experiences to share, advice to offer, or informed questions to ask.  I loved every side conversation I got to have!

-Gail Christopher from the Kellogg Foundation gets it.  I was so enthralled by her speech that I forgot to write anything down.  If I find her remarks in the post-conference media, I’ll link to it here!  She brought such a real, eloquent, and equitable perspective to the conversation.

Here are some great resources to check out for garden educators:

Thanks to everyone who inspired and motivated me at the conference.  It was a great weekend.

School Gardens

Meet Your Farmer

How do you get eggs from a chicken if they don’t want to give them to you? Is it hot working on a farm? Are cucumbers fruits or vegetables? Do you have to catch the animals to get them on the farm? Does chocolate milk come from brown cows? Can we grow bananas in Somerville?  Strawberries?

I am always in awe at the enthusiastic curiosity of elementary students.  I had the pleasure of answering questions like these, and many more, during an event I recently coordinated entitled “Meet Your Farmer.”

In a team with Farm School Farmer David Graham, we visited six classrooms over the course of the day.  David contributed stories and experiences from working on a farm and I offered my expertise gained from working in city gardens during each classroom visit.  With each group, we helped students develop a more concrete and respectful vision of the farming occupation. Our goal was to increase their appreciation for the work it takes to produce food.  One of my main roles was to  make sure to connect our learning to actions we can all take in Somerville in the likely case that families can’t bring students out to farms in the suburbs.

What can we do in a city as densely populated as Somerville?  First, we need to figure out where one could even find space to safely grow vegetables.  As a group, the students brainstormed ideas ranging from backyards, to community gardens, to pots in a window, to their school garden.  (For adults considering backyard gardening, make sure to test your soil for heavy metals first!). We then learned that organic gardening is especially important in our community because it offers much needed habitat for important living things including decomposers, pollinators, predatory insects and birds.  There’s very little space in Somerville for these critters to find food, shelter, water, and friends, making urban gardening’s impacts greater than often is expected.

Next we brainstormed a list of fruits and vegetables that we would like to grow in our school garden.  We learned that many tropical plants can’t grow in Somerville.  We even might have to rule out space hogs like pumpkins and zucchinis if growing in small back yards.  Luckily, we learned that we can grow almost all of the favorite fruits and vegetables brainstormed at the beginning of the lesson.   At the end of the program, we all got to sample several slices of MA-grown Macintosh apples.  We liked how they were crunchy, sweet, and sour at the same time.  It was also cool that they were grown at a farm in our own state.

It’s that time adults!  Do you want to grow for yourself this season?  No matter where you live, you can grow food.  And if you find yourself brimming with questions, feel free to post them below and I’ll see if I can answer them for you!  You may also find the series of “Backyard Gardening” posts I made last year helpful if starting a garden for the first time.

Check out the groups that made this event possible!  “Meet Your Farmer” was coordinated by Groundwork Somerville and funded by Massachusetts Agriculture in the Classroom.  Additional partnering with Somerville Food ServicesUMass Extension Nutrition Education Program, and East Somerville Community School made everything possible.  Also check out the press the program got in the Somerville News and the Somerville Patch!

Answers to introductory questions: -Chickens rarely fight you for their eggs, though if a hen is broody (if she wants to hatch her eggs into chicks), you may have to reach under her with thick leather gloves. -It’s often hot in the summer, but it’s cold in the winter.  We dress for the seasons, like you do when you play outside.  -The animals on the farm were born there; they’re the babies of cows and chickens we already had. -Brown cows make normal white milk.  If you add chocolate and sugar, you get chocolate milk.  -Bananas don’t grow in Somerville because they die in the winter, but strawberries do!

Recipes School Gardens

Rainy Days

Ok, so imagine your title is “Garden Educator.”  Your classroom is a school garden.  It’s lush and chock full of natural learning experiences every week as the seasons pass.  You work after school with students in the garden, so are not constrained by test scores and standards, though you could easily demonstrate that you meet numerous standards every day.  I think this job description sounds pretty good!  …its gets a lot more challenging on weeks with forecasts like this one: 70-100% rain every afternoon.

I often use rain days as opportunities to focus more on nutrition.  Two great themes are “Parts of a Plant” or  “Eating the Rainbow.” Both can culminate in a salad, coleslaw, or stir fry using a vegetable representing each part of a plant or each color in the rainbow.  You’d be surprised how well all three of these snacks are received by students from Kindergarden on up.  If you run multiple sessions and buy all the ingredients at once, each of these recipes is full of veggies and quite affordable.  Check out our coleslaw and stir fry recipes listed at the end of the post!

Both themes are also happily supplemented by “Veggie Twister,” pictured here.  While working at Groundwork Somerville, Maura Schorr Beaufait created this amazingly colorful, engaging, and educational Twister board and accompanying spinner.  The horizontal rows are arranged by parts of a plant and the vertical rows are arranged by color, so the board can be used for each theme.  Maura duct-taped laminated color photos of various produce to a tarp.  Commands such as “right foot leaf” or “left hand seed” will twist your students into knots and test their flexibility.

With cooking and games sprinkled into your session, it’s easy to facilitate your students in learning the functions of the parts of plants or how each color helps promote healthy gardeners.   Do you have successful rain day garden activities?  I’d love to hear about them.  Enjoy your next rain day!

Rainbow Stir Fry: Choose a veggie to represent each color or each part of plant.   Fry in olive oil with salt or soy sauce.  Serve and enjoy!  Here’s an example of what we used this year:

  • kale, ripped by kids (green)
  • red pepper, diced (red)
  • garlic, diced (white)
  • blue potatoes, diced (blue/purple)
  • sweet potato, diced (yellow/orange)

Parts of Plant Coleslaw: Choose a veggie to represent each color or each part of plant.  Some categories could be contested below, but we aim for simplicity especially when working with young students.
Stir veggies together with enough mayonnaise, cider vinegar, sugar, salt, and pepper to make a creamy sauce with balanced sweet, salty, creamy, and sour flavors. Serve and enjoy!  Here’s an example of what we used this year:

  • cabbage, chopped finely (leaf)
  • raisins (fruit)
  • carrots, shredded (root)
  • celery, chopped (stem)
  • broccoli, chopped (flower)
  • sunflower seeds for sprinkling on top  (seed)
Children and Nature Get Involved! Musings Personal Sustainability: How-To School Gardens

2010 Reflections

Volunteers at the 2010 Maple Boil Down
Volunteers at the 2010 Maple Boil Down

2010 has been busy! The year started with two major seasonal projects for me at Groundwork Somerville – The Maple Syrup Project and our April Vacation Camp.  I made my way around huge learning curve and a floded office which tested our resilience as an organization.  Thanks to a large network of friends of GWS and energetic volunteers, we reached more classrooms than ever with the Maple Syrup Project and boiled down 130 gallons of sap to make just over 3 gallons of maple syrup despite torrential rains that started on the second day of the “big boil” and flooded the city and state.  Displaced from our office, staff worked from coffee shops and living rooms.

Spring Harvest at Argenziano School
Spring Harvest at Argenziano School

Somehow planning and outreach for April Vacation Camp happened and we moved in to our new office just before my 30 campers gathered at the Growing Center to work in the gardens, explore the center’s many mini ecosystems, and cook each of our mid-day meals together. June 1st marked my first full year at GWS and entry into programming that I have coordinated before.

Garden Youth Crew planting at Winter Hill School
Garden Youth Crew planting at Winter Hill School

Our summer was the biggest ever – 24 high school students were employed by the Green Team program along with their 3 assistant supervisors and 3 supervisors; 12 young adults and three supervisors worked as National Park Preservers doing historical renovation in Concord and community service in Somerville, 12 middle school students earned stipends for their work for the Garden Youth Crew, and we worked with hundreds of elementary students in school-yard gardens across the city.  Garden workshops on vermiculture, salsa dancing and salsa making, yoga in the garden, and using garden herbs to make tea connected Groundwork staff with old friends and new and enthusiastic neighbors.  People commented that they kept on seeing Groundwork Somerville staff in brightly colored GWS shirts biking, gardening, and lending a hand throughout the city all summer long.

Carrot harvest at East Somerville School
Carrot harvest at East Somerville School

In the fall, we celebrated our harvest with parents, friends, and students in the school gardens and teamed up with the National Park Preserver team to put all the gardens to bed before Thanksgiving vacation.  As with each season in the gardens, I was constantly challenged, energized, and amazed by the great questions, observations, and actions of our elementary Garden Club members.  The end of the year is my quietest time of year when I can reflect and asses the past year and gear up for the next season.  Volunteer recruitment and planning for Garden Clubs and the Maple Syrup Project starts so the pieces are in place for the new year.

2010 started with some of the most challenging feats of coordination I have ever attempted and ended as I found a balance between professional and personal life – neither dominating the other.  My fellowship with the Environmental Leaders Program helped me hone my vision, reminded me to be grateful for the opportunity to have a job that helps my community and the environment, stressed the importance of balancing personal and professional needs, and connected me to an amazing network of folks working for the environment.  All-in-all, it was an amazing year of learning, growing, and finding stability and sustainability.

Children and Nature Get Involved! Home Gardens Musings Personal Sustainability: How-To Recipes School Gardens

As the gardens go to sleep, a new blog sprouts

Welcome to GrowingStories, a compilation of memories, observations, pictures, and stories collected by Groundwork Somerville’s Gardens Coordinator. Follow GrowingStories to see an urban community through rural eyes, to be remember what it was like to be as curious as a third grader, to learn yummy new recipes for in-season veggies, to laugh out loud, to learn about fun upcoming events and volunteer opportunities, and to consider important issues in the fields of sustainable development, education, and urban agriculture.