When Andrea Cotey proposed starting a garden about three years ago for her grandson’s kindergarten class at Michael T. Simmons Elementary School in Tumwater, she envisioned two or three flower boxes where kids could plant some seeds and watch the life cycle take place.
But like any true gardener, once the retired Department of Health computer systems analyst began digging into the project, it grew into something much bigger.
Today, the school’s “Kinder-Garden” features about a dozen raised beds for fruit, veggies and flowers, a compost pile, a worm bin and plenty of sand for kids to dig in.
The program’s reach has sprouted, too. Now all of the school’s 85 or so kindergartners, as well as students in the multi-age program, get to spend about a half hour a week working in the garden.
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“They’re all excited to be out there,” said kindergarten teacher Jodi Murphy. “It gets all of the kids engaged.”
On a recent morning, the day’s garden chores included moving compost, planting tulip and daffodil bulbs, and finding wiggly residents for a new worm bin.
The garden was filled with squeals and shrieks of delight each time a worm was discovered.
“Be gentle with them,” Cotey told the students. “They’re soft and they will die if you squish them.”
In past years, the garden has yielded spinach, lettuce, radishes, marigolds, tulips, tomatoes, potatoes, beans and pumpkins.
“I’ve learned that planting a garden for a school is different because in the summer is the harvest and they’re not here,” Cotey said.
The garden’s supplies, including the seeds and garden tools, have been donated by Cotey. The school’s fifth-grade class built trellises and bird houses for the garden as an Earth Day project.
Cotey enlists her friends and family members to help with the project. Retired kindergarten teacher Kathy Nolan, who helped establish the program, volunteers her time to make sure the garden continues.
Nolan said the garden connects well with many of the lessons required for kindergartners. In addition to a plant’s life cycle, students get to practice large motor skills when they’re shoveling and moving wheelbarrows. They’re also learning about composting, recycling, working together and their community, she said.
“A lot of the kids don’t always know where their food comes from,” Nolan said.
Cotey said she is often approached by older students at the school, who say they wish they could come back and work in the garden.
Kindergarten teacher Pam Egolf said “Grandma Cotey” has helped kids gain fond memories.
“She makes each and every one of them feel special,” she said. “Always gives them a job that they’re capable of doing and they can feel they’re participating and contributing to the garden. She loves to get messy with them — that’s the best part.”
Cotey said she’s happy to share her love for gardening. She said some students don’t do well in a traditional classroom, but they seem to blossom in the garden.
Getting kindergartners to leave the garden is always a challenge, Cotey said.
“I’m really happy to see these kids enjoy being in school because school is stressful,” she added. “I wish every classroom could do it.”