Back to basics

By TheHindu on 04 Apr 2017 | read

What started as an innocuous question in Toronto many years ago — “Where do strawberries come from?” — and an equally innocent answer from a four year old — “From the supermarket” — is what motivated me to take to teaching gardening to children. From working in my own gardens with young children, we’ve now grown into a company, The Magic Bean. The journey started with two colleagues, and we work with children in schools on edible gardening, composting, and sustainability.

When I moved to Chennai and started planting my farm, I realised that although we have such a rich food culture, our children are distanced from their food. Despite the great emphasis on food in our culture, our children are not thinking about what they are eating, where it comes from, and how it grows. They have a very little connection with the earth.

To create awareness among children, we started running year-round edible gardening programmes in schools. We also started one and three-day workshops for children called ‘Kids and the Beanstalk’. The tremendous response we’ve received shows us that parents have the same concerns. Here are a few things we’ve learnt when children start growing food.

Learning the food cycle

From seed to table and back to land, The Magic Bean offers a ‘Seed to Table’ programme in school. As part of this programme that runs through the year, the class meets once a week or every two weeks and children work in the garden. The programme is in its fourth year now and every year, the kids learn something new — we’ve made soil using permaculture methods, made compost, cooked harvests, saved seeds, started a nursery, sold plants, talked about diversity, pollinators.

We connect science, nutrition, food, and the environment. But most importantly, each child is digging, weeding, composting, planting, and harvesting, and usually eating a meal from what they’ve grown.

Dirt makes you happy

Remember those childhood moments of coming home covered in mud after hours of much joyful play. When we started the gardening programme, our city-raised kids were unwilling to use their hands and we gave them gloves. Within two weeks, the gloves were rejected as quickly as they were embraced. There is so much pleasure in digging in the dirt and a recent study links soil microbes to happiness. Every child in our class leaves the class in an elevated mood. We always linked a child’s happiness to fresh air, freedom, time outdoors, but now there’s a new variable — bacteria in the soil that make you happy.

The first time a child encounters an earthworm, there is much jumping back and fear. As we reach the last weeks of the programme, I heard quite a few “Oh wow. Look a fat earthworm”. A child that earlier rushed to crush a bug now waits for the bug to crawl to safety. Garden lizards, toads are celebrated and the numbers of butterflies are a sign that the garden is healthy.

Putting waste to use

We introduce permaculture in the very first few sessions. Children gather dry leaves, collect sugarcane waste, twigs and layer this to build soil. With one garden we grew near a beach, we scoured the beach for corn husks and leaves to make the soil. One child said, “All this would have been garbage if we hadn’t saved it”. They learn how to use panchakavya, a type of manure made from five products from a cow. The initial hesitation to handling “garbage” changed when they realise how powerfully they are actually embracing the 3R's**.

So what do we need to get children to get started?

∙ A space that is theirs — theirs to work in and theirs to grow in.

∙ Let them get their hands in the mud and at the same time teach them to clean up. As urban parents we need to give up this idea that digging in the soil is dirty.

∙ Keep it simple — introduce one idea, one concept a week, but keep everything hands-on and practical.

∙ Connect it to science and age-appropriate curriculum wherever possible. Types of leaves, types of roots, nitrogen nodules, and petals are all simple science lessons.

∙ Keep the objectives simple. Focus on the process, the results will follow.

∙ Go in with a broad plan. But go with the flow.

∙ Be consistent and be patient. We waited for weeks to see if a brinjal that we’d left for seeding would explode.

∙ Most importantly, remember the journey is more important than the results. It doesn’t matter it you only harvest one brinjal or ten tomatoes. Those will be the best brinjals and tomatoes that year and lessons learned for life.

The Magic Bean conducts year-long ‘Seed to Table’ programmes in schools and also age-specific workshops and summer camps. For more details, mail themagicbeanchennai@

The writer is co-founder of The Magic Bean