PBS in the Classroom

Celebrating Earth Day with a Gardening Focus

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It’s Earth Day today, and we will do our part! Around the world, on April 22, people often celebrate Earth Day by planting trees, picking up litter, or “opting outside” by visiting a nearby park or another natural place. Some even make long-term Earth Day resolutions that commit to taking actions over time to help the environment.

Those long-term resolutions are what we strive to portray in Nature Cat’s world. We see our characters routinely learning about and looking for ways to minimize their impact on the natural world and all of the living things it supports. In our Earth Day two-parter (see Earth Day Today and Earth Day Every Day), for example, the gang discovers the harmful effects of plastic bags on the environment and starts a campaign for using reusable bags. The tacit message: Finding ways to celebrate and protect the Earth every day is a satisfying and attainable goal for even our youngest viewers. (Learn how to make a reusable bag from a t-shirt here.)

With that in mind, we provide some suggestions and activities to set this into practice through the lens of Daisy’s garden. Gardening on its own, of course, is a great Earth Day activity. Spring is in full swing and digging in the dirt offers a lifetime of benefits for both the gardener and the planet. But here we use gardening as a springboard into age-appropriate activity related to food waste and sustainability.

Onward and garden-ward!

A garden—whether it’s in a window box or a backyard plot—is a home, a food factory, a recycling center and an energy producer. For three to four seasons a year, a working garden bustles with activity. Even when it’s quiet, or dormant, it is still a living ecosystem lying in wait for warmer weather to return, while providing a safe habitat for hibernating insects (or their eggs), reptiles, amphibians, and many other living things.

For those who grow vegetables, this is the time of year when peas, radishes, spinach and other hardy spring vegetables are growing. Young children love to see these plants push up through the soil, keep an eye on them as they ride out the fickle weather of spring, and mature into food they can eat right from the ground. For anyone who has not planted an early crop this year, try celebrating Earth Day by growing sprouts in a mason jar. (See, for example, https://www.thespruce.com/how-to-grow-sprouts-in-a-jar-2540007)

Children will be fascinated as they watch the seeds sprout and grow in the jar without any soil. And they will likely discover a joy in eating homegrown food that makes wasting it feel especially wrong. 

Waste not, want not

In the United States, as much as 40 percent of all food produced is discarded. Food is being wasted at home, in restaurants, supermarkets, on the farm and in school cafeterias.

Young children are already learning about matching portion sizes with what their stomachs can handle. They are also ready to learn (1) how food gets onto their plates, and (2) where their unfinished food goes when they put it in the trash, helping to motivate less wasteful eating habits.

Where does our food come from?

Many children think their food comes from the store.  But did the food grow at the store? This is a good time to help children think about more of the food’s journey.

For example, some children love to drink a glass of milk. They might know milk comes from a cow, but who raises the cow and provides her with food and water? Who milks the cow and then bottles the milk? And then who trucks the milk to the store for purchase? These are just a few steps that illustrate the hard work and energy expended for the glass of milk. Another Earth Day activity: Diagram milk’s journey from farm to glass.

When a child doesn’t finish a glass of milk, it isn’t just the milk that’s wasted, but also the time and effort of the cow, the farmer, the bottler and the milk truck driver.

Where does food go that isn’t eaten?

In America, we waste about a pound of food per person per day.  Though composting is becoming more common, most of this food waste heads for the landfill. So not only is the food not being eaten by people, it’s also not being eaten by animals or turned into a source of organic nutrients for the soil.

Let’s return to Daisy’s garden. When Daisy’s plants wither in the winter, she leaves them to decompose and feed the soil and next spring’s generation of plants. She also composts. A compost makes it possible for organic material to decompose and turn into humus, a fancy word for the organic matter in soil. Humus can then be mixed in with the soil of house plants or in a garden. Check out our DIY compost activity here, which allows children to see the process first hand and is a stepping stone to incorporating composting into daily routines.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

There is another component to food waste: imperfect produce. In the aisles of the supermarket, the fruits and vegetables we see are models of perfection¾blemish-free, with shiny skins and uniform shapes. Children (and adults) often come to expect that this is how all produce should look. But what about produce that doesn’t meet these perfection standards? In the best-case scenarios, it feeds livestock, or is composted, chopped up and used in prepared foods, donated to food pantries or turned over to feed the soil for next year’s crops. In the worst case, it heads for the landfill. Note, too, that there are several other factors at play regarding food waste as it moves from the farm to the store, but so-deemed ugly produce is a more kid-friendly topic we can explore.

Back to Daisy’s garden: In our episode Imperfect Produce, we see that fruiting plants can produce their fruits and vegetables in a variety of shapes and sizes with flaws that may impact appearance, but not taste!

Thinking about Earth Day projects through the lens of Daisy’s garden allows children to participate in thoughtful discussions and take the opportunity to examine their own behaviors around food—an important experience as we become comfortable developing sustainable behaviors and embracing the “Earth Day is every day” concept. 

Frances Nankin and Jesse McMahon Content Producers and Writers

Frances Nankin is an award-winning editor, writer and television/Web producer with more than 35 years experience developing content for children’s educational media. Prior to her current role as Content Producer for NATURE CAT with Spiffy Entertainment, she was Executive Producer/Editorial Director for the CYBERCHASE series with Thirteen/WNET, New York. Before that, she was Co-director of Science Content for THE MAGIC SCHOOL BUS TV series with Scholastic Productions. Nankin, a self-taught naturalist who grew up in the Ramapo Mountains of New York, is the author of several science-related books for children, and was the founding editor of a number of children’s magazines, including COBBLESTONE, a history magazine now in its 39th year of publication. 

Jesse McMahon, Content Producer for Nature Cat, holds a master’s degree in journalism, and brings to the team more than a decade of experience in research and writing in print media and educational publishing. She  telecommutes from Maine, where she lives with her husband, two dogs and numerous chickens. McMahon's other TV credits include Content Brief Writer for Cyberchase and Science Consultant for Magic School Bus Rides AgainMcMahon's byline has also appeared in numerous publications, including The Boston Globe, ProPublica and the Investigative Reporting Initiative at Northeastern University. Her commitment to volunteer work in environmental advocacy and deep respect for the natural world is a passion she is delighted to transfer to young viewers.

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