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A new kind of camp for young students: Garden Literacy


Seated around a picnic table in the garden at Southold Elementary School, six students stare at bugs they captured in clear containers earlier in the day, making notes about their observations and drawing images of the insects. 

After completing their observation, the children use what they learned to decide if the insect is a friend or foe to the garden.

The routine was part of a recent lesson at Southold’s new Garden Literacy Camp, which focused on different insects found in gardens and the roles they play in plant development. The previous week, students had learned about pollinators, which came in handy when three of the group picked bees from leaves to observe before releasing them back into the garden.

The six-week camp is a new program fifth-grade teacher Debra Kimmelman created after enrolling in a Master Gardener volunteer program through Cornell Cooperative Extension in Riverhead. Even after finishing 80 classroom hours and a final exam, Ms. Kimmelman said, she still needed 125 volunteer hours to get her certification.

“So I thought, what better way to earn those hours, plus maintain the garden during the summer months and offer kids an opportunity to ‘play’ in the garden?” she said.

Elementary students can register for the camp on a week-by-week basis, said Ms. Kimmelman, who runs the program with Patricia Buonaiuto. So far, the classes have ranged from six to 12 students.

Campers begin the day by recapping what they learned in the previous class, then build upon that with classroom reading for about an hour.

Last Thursday morning’s class focused on harmful and helpful insects, so Ms. Buonaiuto read the class a book titled “It’s a Good Thing There are Insects” and had the students make a chart showing which insects might be beneficial for a garden and which ones a gardener would hope to avoid.

“Beetles are beneficial because they help pollinate,” second-grader LeNeve Zuhoski said.

“The potato bug is harmful because it eats all the leaves,” sixth-grader Camille Ramone said. “The potato won’t grow without leaves because leaves collect sunlight.”

Following the literary portion came the students’ favorite part of the class: visiting the garden. With clipboards and plastic containers in hand, they marched into the enclosed area to look for the insects they’d just discussed.

After observing and releasing the insects, the students moved on to harvesting some plants from the garden — including mint, basil, celery, radishes and potatoes — to bring home to share with friends and family.

Most of the kids were excited about the potatoes, swapping recipes for the homemade potato chips they planned to make. One student traded his radishes for some extra mint, his favorite thing from the garden, which he’ll put in his water and tea at home.

“Many of the kids are trying new vegetables they’ve never had before,” Ms. Buonaiuto said. “They’re excited about it. When they’re with the science teacher they’ll pick snap peas right off and eat them.”

Ms. Kimmelman said the students also spend time weeding the garden, eventually placing the weeds in the composter and using the output when planting new beds.

“They learn so much about the natural world, where their food comes from and the process of getting the food to our tables,” Ms. Kimmelman said. “But they also learn to work together, to help others by providing snacks for children in Greenport via their new bookmobile and when they go home they can enjoy time with family preparing their harvest and trying different foods.”

Photo caption: Debra Kimmelman looks on as students (from left) Andrew Larsen, LeNeve Zuhoski and Camille Ramone study a dragonfly during Southold’s garden literacy camp Thursday morning. (Credit: Nicole Smith)

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