Experiential learning. Positive playtime. Science education. Nutrition. Call it what you like—the Regional Environmental Council (REC) teaches children invaluable life skills.
REC, whose programs include UGROW and YOUTHGROW, for adults and teens, respectively, and area farmers’ markets, is helping young children build, tend, and harvest gardens. The organization is on a mission to create healthy, sustainable, and equitable communities, and working with young children fits right in.
“It’s really exciting and empowering for kids to connect with the process of seeing something grow,” says REC Director of Programs Grace Sliwoski. “I see it with my own kids, who are three and five. They build a connection with it, take ownership of it, and feel proud to show it off. There’s also a correlation between gardening and trying new foods.”
REC’s early childhood programming is made possible in part by a United Way of Central Massachusetts grant. REC was among more than a dozen winners of UWCM’s Community Challenge, and credits Edward Street with supporting the organization’s grant application.
“We couldn’t have done this without Edward Street,” says Sliwoski. “They helped us gear our programming to young children and assisted in demonstrating its importance for children, families, and the entire community.”
REC is currently partnering with seven local childcare programs: South High Preschool Program & Teen Parent Program, Rainbow Childhood Development Center, YWCA of Central Massachusetts, Boys and Girls Club of Worcester, YMCA of Central Massachusetts, and the Greendale, Mill Swan, and Millbury Head Start programs. The organization also works with older children at upwards of 25 elementary schools, high schools, and other youth-centered programs.
Gardens are only the beginning. REC has plans to work with children year-round, not only when the weather is nice. Ideas include off-site field trips, seed-starting in the classroom, selected readings, onsite gardens – “anything that gets children excited about food and gardening.”
REC isn’t afraid to get creative. Before funding came through to help build gardens at childcare centers, the organization developed mini farmers’ markets at places like the YMCA of Central Massachusetts. Children received tote bags and printed picture shopping lists, and were set loose to go “shopping.” Along the way, they were asked questions about where vegetables come from and who they usually go food shopping with.
“It was the cutest thing you’ve ever seen. They were very discerning customers,” said Sliwoski. Now, they can be discerning eaters and someday build gardens of their own.