By Michelle Cohen
When Holly Hebron returned from a Partnership2Gether teachers’ exchange trip to Israel, she was determined to bring what she learned to the students at the JCC back home – in particular, she was inspired by the outdoor learning spaces, gardens and other ways for children to learn about nature and participate in the world around them.
That was two years ago – and now, students are preparing to harvest tomatoes, squash and a variety of herbs and flowers from the JCC school garden, a cooperative project between Hebron, Terrence Baker and preschool, pre-K and kindergarten students. A project that began with an indoor greenhouse has grown so much thanks to the efforts of Hebron and her young helpers who are determined to make the world a better place.
“They are so excited checking the tomatoes on the vine every day,” said Hebron, who takes the children out to the garden to water, weed and check on crops. “I’m so glad the kids are excited about it.” In a world increasingly dependent on technology, giving the kids an opportunity to engage with the world around them is very important for Hebron.
She also drew inspiration from the Sheva program, a guide from the JCC Association of North America that offers seven Jewish principles that are important to impart to children. Tikkun olam is one, and it is interpreted as healing the world in both an emotional and a physical sense. “This responsibility extends to our behavior concerning our environment,” the manual says. “According to the Torah, our role on earth is both that of master and steward … as partners with the Divine, we are involved in continual redemption and reparation of our world.”
This connection between personal ethics and the environment finds its way into the classroom in more ways than one. During the year, the students go on a field trips to places like a nature observatory, where they take immersive walks in nature, and Strawberry Acres, where they learn about fruits before picking and eating them. “They learn on these trips that things don’t have to be technological to be exciting,” said Hebron, who also emphasized the communal aspect of the school’s garden.
As part of the curriculum, the kids learn about nature and take care of their own plants as well as the school’s plants. Every class picks weeds, and this past year, every student painted a rock to arrange in the garden. Students also used clay donated by a parent to create totem poles to decorate the garden.
As for the plants themselves, during the past school year, students had the option to plant one herb, one flower and one vegetable for a variety of classroom activities. Some were focused on learning skills such as inquiry, classifying and sorting, dialogue, cooperation and fine motor skills. Others were for special events, like planting flowers for Mother’s Day and using plucked weeds to create centerpieces for a Tu B’Shevat event this past winter.
“It’s so rewarding to see how excited they are about something so simple like nature,” said Hebron, who looks forward to this year’s harvest and many more to come.