COLUMBIA — "Is this poop?" Colton Dodds, 4, asks as his tiny fingers poke a hole in the soil.
Christopher Murakami assures him it's not and hands him a small cabbage plant.
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Colton carefully places the plant in the hole, banks it with soil, pats it down and rocks back to admire his work.
He and several other children in the MU Child Development Lab are tending a vegetable plot as part of the new Children's Learning Garden, which opened last fall.
Murakami, a doctoral candidate in science education, developed the idea for the garden when he came to Columbia in 2010. He wanted to observe the ways children interact with food and how they learn about themselves through gardening.
The kids in the lab get their hands dirty every week by planting, nurturing and harvesting seasonal produce — rosemary, broccoli rabe, sunflowers, cabbage and peas.
The raised beds are labeled with colorful signs that mark the different plants. Children in the lab can start gardening as young as 18 months and can continue until they are 5.
Once his cabbage is planted, Colton joins his classmates to wander around the garden as part of free exploratory time. Murakami said this interaction is critical to their connection with nature.
Murakami waves to the children to come smell his favorite plant, a sprig of chocolate mint. The kids lean in to smell the leaves, then zoom down the gravel walkways that weave through the garden.
The children like to play in an isolated bin of soil called a "sensory table," which holds mini flower pots, a gourd and a plastic blue shovel.
Trying to find worms, Colton picks up the shovel and sifts through the dirt. Other kids use their hands to dig up roly polies and watch the bugs wiggle in their palms.
A few of the children line up to hop down a path of uneven tree stumps mounted in a raised flower bed. Others zip through the red brick paths that cut through various soil plots.
"The garden is meant to be a place for kids to explore," Murakami said.
The learning garden sits just south of the People's Garden near MU's Curtis Hall. Both gardens are about one-tenth of an acre.
The People's Garden, an experimental plot, is managed by the Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service. It sends most of its produce to the Food Bank of Central and Northeastern Missouri and its Central Pantry.
The learning garden is under the supervision of the Human Development and Family Studies Department. Children can learn how to cook produce there, and sometimes they eat the vegetables for lunch.
How it started
Murakami's vision for a learning garden can be traced back to his experience in east Los Angeles as an eighth-grade science teacher.
He wanted to teach his students about the importance of sustainable living but decided most ideas about sustainability were too abstract.
When he came to MU to pursue a graduate degree, he knew he needed to demonstrate a concrete way to show kids how to decrease their environmental impact — he found that in food.
"Food is a direct way to interact with the environment," Murakami said. "And something we do all the time whether we are aware of it or not."
Putting kids in a cafeteria to eat whatever is placed on their trays does not contribute to food education, he said. Murakami said are always a learning and that should include learning about the nutrients they put in their bodies.
"Children should think it is normal to participate in growing and eating their own food," he said.
Children in the lab have used the tomatoes they grow to make salsa and the juice from beets to make pink lemonade. Vegetable soup, mint tea and salads have also been made with learning garden produce.
Murakami said teaching children to garden makes it easier for them to recognize vegetables and more likely to try new ones.
"One of the parents told me their son has started asking for kale at the grocery store," he said.
Colton's mom, Lisa Dodds, said the learning garden is a "wonderful" addition to the curriculum and the kids love working with Murakami — even if planting seeds isn't always her son's favorite part.
"He wants to take the shovel and dig in the dirt," Dodds said. "He also loves the hose. The messier the better."
The garden has inspired parents to try gardening as well. Dodds will be planting a small vegetable garden in her backyard this summer.
"I'm not sure how successful it will be," she said, "but we'll see."
A donation from MU's Nutrition and Exercise Physiology Department launched the program, but a contribution from alumni Robert and Marlese Gourley funded the garden's construction. Murakami also received the National Wildlife Federation Campus Ecology Fellowship to help pay for the project.
A division of the Agricultural Research Service and other contributors provided plants and insects. The insects should counteract the harmful insects in the garden, making pesticides unnecessary.
For some of the kids, the bugs are the best part.
Murakami said he is looking forward to expanding his research, improving the garden teacher learning process and starting courses related to using learning gardens in early childhood and elementary education.
But for now, he said he is satisfied with the progress this learning garden has made.
"It's about being intentional in learning about ourselves and our connection with food and each other," he said.
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.