Earth Day is a time to celebrate the dirt. And kids love dirt.
Community gardens across Long Island are embracing budding growers, with dedicated programs designed to foster a love of all things green.
"Gardening helps kids to make the connection between what they eat and how to care for the earth we share," says Robin Obey, 57, who teaches a summer gardening program for kids at Gateway Park Organic Community Garden in Huntington Station.
There, children cultivate an appreciation for the growing process -- and respect for earthworms.
"At first, they would grab a worm and chase each other," Obey recalls. "After they understood how important earthworms are, if they found one they'd put it gently back into the ground."
How's that for earth friendly?
CONNECTING TO THE EARTH
The ongoing Tiny Tots class at Tanglewood Preserve's Center for Science Teaching and Learning in Rockville Centre gets young kids out of their seats and into the dirt.
After a story, craft and a treat, nearly 20 toddlers and an equal number of adults followed teacher Jon Early, 23, of Rockville Centre, to the community garden on a recent Monday.
"Kids get really excited working in the dirt," says Early. The session involved planting strawberries and wildflowers that the children will eventually harvest using scaled-down tools. "Kids love digging and doing anything with water."
Afterward, the class walked in the woods to find beneficial bugs and plants.
Although an activity for the children, adults came away with skills as well.
"I never gardened before, but now that I see how easy it is, I think I will from now on," says Arlene Swerdloff, of Merrick, there with her grandson Adam, 3. "Adam, maybe the next strawberry you'll eat will be from the garden here."
At Gateway Park in Huntington Station, students in fourth through seventh grades learn about plants, beneficial bugs and even plant cell structure. For example, Obey stuck a celery stalk in colored water to show how a plant takes up water. Scavenger hunts through the garden hone observational skills. Math and science are on the menu -- along with tomatoes and radishes -- as the kids figure out plot sizes and pollination rates.
"Most didn't know anything about gardening when they started." says Debbie Rimler, director of Tri Community Youth Agency, which partners with the garden for the programming. "By the end, they were making vegetable smoothies, had built a worm house and harvested peppers, tomatoes and cauliflower."
BROADENED SKILL SET
In addition to coming away with boxes of tomatoes and sacks of green beans, pint-size gardeners come away with knowledge of how a garden grows.
Young gardeners at the New Suffolk Waterfront Fund Community Garden are paired with a mentor who works with them, from preparing the soil through to the harvest.
"We require our student gardeners to come for 45 minutes every Saturday to work in the garden with a mentor," says Muffie Baker, 65, of New Suffolk, one of the mentors. "We teach them that it isn't just about harvest time. They also have to understand how to amend the soil, remove rocks and weeding."
But it isn't all back-bending work.
"During the season, we'll harvest food and have a stir-fry lunch," Baker says. "Kids love that we can take something straight out of the ground, rinse it off and eat it."
Kids gardening programs
Getting youngsters into the garden is as easy as 1-2-3. While these gardens still have slots available for children and adults, don't tarry, because space is limited.
INFO 631-223-8179, lican.org
ELIGIBILITY Huntington residents, first preference to Huntington Station residents
The garden has 24 dedicated children's beds, with programming organized by the Tri CYA youth program.
Waterfront Fund Community Garden (Main Street)
INFO 631-734-7237, newsuffolkwaterfront.org
ELIGIBILITY Open to all.
Mentor program open to kids in third grade and above.
The Collaborative Organic Community Garden (at Tanglewood Park and Preserve, 1 Tanglewood Rd.)
INFO 516-764-0045, cstl.org
ELIGIBILITY Open to all.
Besides signing a child up for a growing bed, adults can enroll kids 18 months-36 months in a Monday morning "Tiny Tots" program ($8 a session), where they'll visit the class community garden plot.