Personal Sustainability: How-To Recipes School Gardens

Make your own Butter

We love good butter in our household.  We’ve believed in the benefits of eating butter from grass-fed cows for some time, and now the mainstream media is now slowly catching on.  Both NPR and The New York Times reported on the recent publication from the Annals of Internal Medicine which concluded that saturated fat consumption did not increase chances of heart attacks or heart disease.  Furthermore, butter made of cream from grass-fed cows is rich in vitamins A and D, along with many other health promoting factors detailed by the Weston Price Foundation.

butter-makingButter can be easy to make (for adults) and fun to make (for groups of kids).  Making butter is a great way for students to learn where food comes from, taste test herbs in an appealing way, use up some energy, and have fun!  Here are several different butter making methods, along with recipes and suggestions for associated games and activities.  When buying cream, remember that the best nutrition will come from organic dairy from grass-fed pastured cows!

butter-in-bowlLeast Effort: Fill your food processor 1/3 full with heavy or whipping cream (if you fill it too full, cream may spurt out the top when turned on).  Turn on the food processor and wait for the liquid to turn into whipped cream.  Continue to blend until the contents separate into milk and butter chunks.  If you stay nearby, there will be a distinct change in sound when the butter separates out after about 10 minutes.  Drain off milk (can be used for cooking) and put your chunks of butter into a cold bowl.  Use a cold spoon or butter knife to push the butter around, squeezing out remaining milk.  Mix in sea salt, spices, or herbs as desired and refrigerate in a covered container.  Homemade butter will have a similar shelf-life to milk because it is unlikely you squeezed out every last bit of milk.

shaking-butterKid-Powered: Remember – each of these steps could be a task for a child… no adult labor is needed!  Fill a pint Ball jar 1/3 of the way with heavy or whipping cream.  Screw on the lid very well.  Turn upside down to make sure the lid is on correctly.  If you’re with a group of kids, stand in a circle or around a table.  As the first child shakes the jar, clap and chant:

Shake butter shake.  Shake butter shake.
__(name)__ is at the garden gate, mixing up a butter cake.
Shake butter shake.  Shake butter shake.
(chant from Project Seasons)

When the verse is done, the child passes the jar to the person standing next to them.  The jar makes its way around the group, getting shaken continuously.  If you are working with a new group of students, the chant can be a great way to learn and remember everyone’s name!  A big ball of butter should separate from the milk within about 10 minutes.  (*if working with a group of students, make sure to see “herbed butter” below*)

Cultured: If you’d like to make cultured butter, you’ll need to sour your cream first.  We do this the same way we make yogurt, except use cream instead of milk.  Once your cream is sour, continue with one of the methods above.  Your two final products will be cultured buttermilk and cultured butter.

chopped-herbsHerbed Butter: Herbs have a very strong flavor, and they’re hard to get excited about for most kids.  In our school gardens, we made and tasted herbed butters to learn about different herb flavors in a more palatable way.  Washed kids scissors can be used by students to finely cut up herbs.  Simply mix chopped herbs and a shake of salt into your freshly made butter.  We often made several varieties, spread them on crackers, and had the students vote for their favorites.  Some of the most popular choices were: garlic chives, chives, dill, oregano, basil, parsley, and sage.  At home, herbed butters can add a fancy twist to your dinner table or plate of hors d’oeuvres.


Want to learn more?:
Butter is Better via the Weston A. Price Foundation
Rethinking Fat: The Case For Adding Some Into Your Diet via NPR
Study Questions Fat and Heart Disease Link via New York Times
Association of Dietary, Circulating, and Supplement Fatty Acids With Coronary Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis
My past blog post about Raw Milk, including our Yogurt Recipe

Children and Nature Musings School Gardens

In Appreciation of Play

Working with kids in a diversity of settings, I’ve developed a deep appreciation of the importance of play.

I have been working with elementary students since graduating college.  Two years ago I moved from urban schools to a rural one. This past fall, pre-schoolers were added to my mix at work.  My new job was a shift in another way – I moved from public school settings to a Waldorf school.  Each transition has deepened my belief in the importance of play.  Especially outdoor play.

Search “Play” and “Child Development” and you’ll see a never-ending list of scholarly articles highlighting the importance of play for children.  In fact, it seems crucial for healthy mental, social, and physical development.  So why is recess time getting cut?  Why are we filling kids’ afternoons with structured adult-led activities?  Why are we signing  young children up for organized sports?  Luckily, some parents, schools, and neighborhoods are starting to realize how important unstructured and outdoor play is for our children.

At our Waldorf school, we try to create an atmosphere that promotes joy, wonder, and reverence in students.  Free creative play and exploration of the social and natural world is key in the positive development of our young students.  The numerous ways simple natural materials like stumps, sticks, mud, water, sand, and leaves can be used by a group of children never ceases to amaze me.  At the same time, however, it makes sense.  Think about how many different things a basket of polished rocks, dried corn cobs, or a curved stick could become in imaginative children’s play.  A toy airplane, on the other hand, will probably always end up being used as an airplane.  For adults, this makes facilitating imaginative play easy: simple things found in nature make some of the best toys!  Unstructured time, without all sorts of  adult-driven activities, helps kids grow into independent and creative adults.

Peter Gray wrote a recent article in the The Independent titled Give childhood back to children: if we want our offspring to have happy, productive and moral lives, we must allow more time for play, not less.  Gray makes the importance of play clear.  Creativity, getting along with others, teamwork, impulse control, control over emotions like fear and anger, and independence are all qualities that are crucial for success in today’s world. Without regular opportunities for free play, Gray argues, children do not have the opportunity to develop these skills.

Do you work with students, or have children of your own?  Consider simplifying your schedule and leaving more time for free play!  Children who complain of boredom will soon find ways to entertain themselves, leaving you with more time for that long “to do” list.  Think of chores or work you can do on the periphery, keeping an eye on your children without interfering in their imaginary world.

There are numerous resources available for parents and educators wanting to spend more time outside with children.  The Children and Nature Network is one of my favorites.  Their mission is to create a world where every child can play, learn and grow in nature.  They have practical resources for families and a library of research available for those interested in learning about the health benefits of spending time in nature.  Don’t forget, adults also benefit from free time outside to relax, de-stress, and get moving!

Children and Nature

A Woodlands Playground

Who needs a playground when there are trees, stumps, logs, and sticks to play with?  Balance beams, teeter totters, seats, boundaries, or building blocks – the sky is the limit! Check out some simple and some ingenious ways to turn old trees into a great natural play space:

Balance Beam
Balance Beam
Our "bouncy tree" with suspended branches to hang on or balance on
Our “Bouncy Tree” with suspended branches to hang on or balance on
Natural sandbox border
Natural Sandbox Border
Every playground needs a rotton log!  This one has been picked apart to harvest sawdust - an ingredient in our woodland kitchen
Every playground needs a rotton log! This one has been picked apart to harvest sawdust – an ingredient in our woodland kitchen
"Worm writing" covers this rotten log
“Worm Writing” covers this rotten log
Teeter-totter and balance beams for older students
Teeter-totter and balance beams for older students
Stumps make steps and chairs for our fort
Stumps make steps and chairs for our fort (and a tick-tack-toe board if you have charcoal!)
Hammer and nail practice
Hammer and Nail practice

How do you use trees, stumps, logs, and sticks in your play space?

Children and Nature Home Gardens Personal Sustainability: How-To School Gardens

Tips for Gardening with Kids

Gardening with kids provides adults with countless learning experiences.  This is part of the joy of working outside in natural places with kids.  However, it can also provide barriers and hurdles if you are a parent or teacher who already has a lot on your mind.  I’ve listed a few key tips below so that you don’t need to have as many bumps in your path to growing an amazing garden with your kids or students.

hoeingHave enough tools for everyone.  Nothing invites destructive behavior or disinterest more than idle hands and nothing to do.  Being able to jump right into a physical task without too much talking and listening is what makes gardening fun – especially for kids who aren’t succeeding in school.  Take advantage of this and make sure everyone has the tool they need to get right to work!  If you’re working with a limited budget, you may need to split into smaller groups so that you don’t need tons of every type of tool.

seedlingsDon’t worry too  much about straight lines or an orderly garden.  It is important to give clear planting instructions, practice following directions from the back of a seed packet, and learn how to handle plants without hurting them.  It is also important, however, for adults to let kids take it from there.  Lines might be wiggly.  Seeds might be planted too deep or not deep enough.  A seedling might get broken.  However, some plants will grow and students can say: “I did that!” and really mean it.  Buy a few extra seedlings and seeds to allow for some loss and to ensure a bountiful garden.

snailTreat everything as a learning experience – there are no failures.  If a row of seeds doesn’t come up, ask why?  Were seeds planted too deep?  Was it too cold?  Did anything eat the seeds or young sprouts?  This is the perfect relevant scientific mystery that prompts kids to practice all of those standards they are working to “achieve” in the classroom.  If a snail eats all the rainbow chard, talk about the garden’s role in an ecosystem or food chain.  Learn about snails!  If food goes missing, talk about how we could help our community’s hungry families plant their own gardens.  Don’t like the taste of the plant you worked so hard to grow this summer?  Think about flavors you do like and start planning for next year!

garden-evaluationLet kids have decision making power.  When gardening, there are so many opportunities for students to be empowered.  Which varieties should we grow? Where should things get planted?  Should there be flowers too?  If you have room, it’s great to give kids their own small space next to the family’s larger production garden.  If they loose interest, that’s fine.  If not, the possibilities are endless.  It’s fun as a parent or teacher to see how kids’ gardens grow and evolve over the season.

observationDon’t worry about production.  This is especially true with younger children.  Gardening with kids should be about being physically active outside, learning from mentors, long-term planning and rewards, environmental health, teamwork, learning where food comes from, getting to know plants intimately, community service, and more.  Often, we are rewarded with delicious produce, but never forget about all of the other benefits and rewards of gardening with kids!

flower-wateringHave plants that look good, smell good, and feel good.  Flowers make the garden an inviting place for humans and pollinators.  Herbs can be picked for tasting and smelling throughout the growing season.  Having furry, smooth, prickly, and ridged leaves helps students experience the garden and build comfortable relationships with plants before they are asked to try eating new flavors and textures.

rainbow-carrotsTry varieties with fun features: multi-colored carrots, giant pumpkins, or bite-sized tomatoes.  I always plant familiar plants.  I also love adding in some unfamiliar ones (like kohlrabi), bite-sized ones (tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, carrots, and more), giant ones (pumpkins and sunflowers), and multicolored varieties (chard, carrots, string beans, tomatoes, and more).  A garden should be a fun safe beautiful place for discovery, experimentation, and learning the flavors you love.

Home Gardens Recipes School Gardens

Becoming a Vegetable Whisperer

I’ve seen it over and over again.  Parents, baby sitters, cafeteria directors, or after school staff trying to figure out how to get their kids to eat vegetables.  Too often it seems like a battle.  “If you eat your carrots, you can have a dessert” or “You can’t leave the table until you finish all the beans on your plate.”

Helping kids learn to love vegetables has been part of every job description I’ve ever had.  Becoming a vegetable whisperer isn’t as hard as most people think.  It does, however, take time and strategy.  Children often dislike new foods the first time they taste them but will change their preferences with multiple exposures.  Your efforts, in other words, will pay off!  I’ve listed some tricks of trade below for you to try out at home or school:

Provide healthy choices: Too often we are given a choice between something healthy and something unhealthy – salad or fries, for example.  We like having options and know which choice we should make, but it’s often different from the one we want to make, causing us to feel guilty and conflicted.  Providing choices allows your child to feel empowered, so why not allow her to chose which vegetables she eats?  In making a selection, she decides which vegetable she thinks she likes the most.  Seeing that vegetable in a positive and empowerd light will make it much more likely that she will enjoy her selection.

Taste testing: Better yet, she can take some of both veggie options to taste test, and then have seconds of the one she likes the most.  Taste testing very similar items such as peaches and nectarines, or different colors of the same vegetable, helps children take a full serving of produce.  I have a student who takes only two carrot sticks when orange carrots are offered.  He takes two sticks of each color (eight in total) when white, yellow, purple, and orange carrots are offered.

Student-grown: Anyone who has worked with students in a school garden will tell you: kids are more likely to try new veggies and love familiar vegetables when they grow that produce themselves.  Having ownership over the plant’s entire life cycle has a logical result: wanting to have ownership over the eating of that plant!

Cooking together: Helping with meal or snack preparation can have similar results.  When we cook with ingredients, we strengthen our relationship with them.  Their smell, texture, and color becomes familiar.  We’re naturally inclined to attempt (or even pretend) to like things we cook – if we put all that work into it, it better taste good!

Experiment with raw vs. blanched veggies: My students prefer blanched (or steamed) green beans over raw green beans, but prefer fresh carrots over blanched ones.  When blanching vegetables, I make sure to cook them very lightly – just enough for the color to deepen, but not so much that the vegetable becomes soft or mushy.  Some vegetables taste better cooked, and some taste better raw.  Do taste tests with your kids to learn their preferences, and then serve them what they like!  Try blanching broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, or pea pods.

“But it’s hard!”: Offering choices and increasing student involvement takes time, energy, and money.  Families and school districts struggling to provide healthy eating options rarely have time, energy or money to spare.  School gardens, back yard gardens, and partnerships with local farms can make a huge difference. I’ve never found rainbow carrots in a grocery store.   Growing multicolor produce, however, makes a school garden more fun without adding any expense.  Community members can be a great resource, and may be willing to help garden or cook with students.  In the end, each of these partnerships and projects help bring neighbors together to grow stronger as a whole community.  Celebrate each small victory, and enjoy plenty of delicious vegetables along the way!