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‘I always try it’

Canton preschool gets youngsters to incorporate healthful eating habits by exploring vegetables from seed to table — and have fun while they’re at it

Charlotte Bosworth, Chloe Chao, and Colin Benson make squash muffins at Learning Circle Preschool in Canton. As part of the Early Sprouts program, the students help to plant foods, cook simple recipes at school, share them at snack, and then share the recipes with family at home. Charlotte Bosworth, Chloe Chao, and Colin Benson make squash muffins at Learning Circle Preschool in Canton. As part of the Early Sprouts program, the students help to plant foods, cook simple recipes at school, share them at snack, and then share the recipes with family at home. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)
By Robert Knox
Globe Correspondent / April 29, 2010

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Charlotte Bosworth stirs the mixture. Colin Benson adds the salt. Millie Smith breaks the eggs. The butternut squash the preschoolers were introduced to earlier this year — they got to examine it on the science table and extract the seeds — is being transformed into butternut squash muffins today to be consumed at snack time.

Eating, cooking, and planting are all part of the learning in the Early Sprouts program at Learning Circle Preschool.

Under the culinary leadership of teacher Barbara Lapal, squash pulp is mixed with sugar, cinnamon, and other ingredients. Many small fingers lend a hand. When it’s someone else’s turn to do the measuring, pouring, or stirring, there’s always something to talk about:

“I like the smell of the cinnamon.’’

“Wow! That’s a lot of sugar.’’

“I want to eat salt.’’

“I am a robot. Somebody put batteries in me.’’

Is this any way to introduce children to the joy of vegetables? You bet it is, say the kids.

“I always try it,’’ Chloe Chao says of her class’s weekly recipe, one of the tools the school uses to introduce new foods through the Early Sprouts curriculum.

The preschool students have opened their taste buds — along with the other senses — and bought into the Early Sprouts approach, their teachers say.

“They love it,’’ said Katrina Selawsky, the Canton preschool’s director. “They love the cooking. They are amazingly good at trying vegetables no one dreamed they would eat.’’

The children have “even adopted the language’’ of the program, Selawsky said. If a recipe for chard or tomatoes isn’t a hit, they say, “I don’t like it yet.’’ There is always room for change and growth.

Developed at New Hampshire’s Keene State College, Early Sprouts is a “seed to table’’ curriculum created to provide young children with exposure to new foods, including sensory exploration through tasting, cooking, and growing them, in order to overcome a common tendency to pull back from unfamiliar foods.

In its fourth year, Learning Circle — a six-hour-a-day school for area youngsters ages 2.9 to 7, with five teachers for 39 children — adopted the curriculum last year following a successful training program. The children are introduced to common vegetables in group settings, Selawsky said. They look at them, touch them, smell them, and explore them on the school’s science table, examining their seeds through a magnifying glass. Later this spring they will plant vegetables in containers and raised beds in the schoolyard.

In a typical session, Selawsky said, 3-year-olds become scientists, comparing tomatoes of different sizes. After examining the outsides, children cut the tomatoes open and work on collecting the seeds. In another session, a small group comes to grips with chard, describing what they see as teachers jot down and post their words in order to help build later discussions.

Other lessons involve breaking carrots into pieces for measurements while placing the leaves of the carrot plants on moist towels to see whether they will continue growing. The children also made paper vegetables, using a vegetable alphabet book as inspiration, for a “dramatic play farm stand.’’

Last spring they started seedlings on the science table, cared for them, and documented changes — with crayons — as they grew. They transplanted the seedlings when they were ready, tending their bean, tomato, lettuce, and herb plants outdoors. They invited their parents to help make raised beds while they pulled up grass, helped turn the soil, and discovered those essential farmer’s helpers: worms.

“Children who cared for these plants through harvest definitely made the connection to our fall explorations of vegetables, and seemed more willing to try the recipes right from the start,’’ teacher Elaine Beguerie said.

They also visited the nearby Brookwood Community Farm, where crops are planted for food pantries and a vegetable stand, and harvested leeks under the direction of Brookwood coordinator Judy Lieberman.

And they cook, with new recipes based around six vegetables — squash, chard, carrots, green beans, tomatoes, and peppers — all winter. They share the results at snack time, then take the recipes home to their families.

Learning about food in a hands-on way makes it more likely that children will be healthful eaters after they leave nursery school, with the health benefits that accrue from good eating, Selawsky said. Educators have found that children often don’t know where food comes from, and ignorance may be contributing to the nation’s obesity problem.

Even beyond eating healthfully and growing their food IQ, the Early Sprouts program is a concrete learning experience — “That’s how kids learn,’’ Selawsky said — that carries over to other areas.

“It’s deep learning, meaningful. It sticks with you,’’ she said. “It’s very holistic. You do measuring, figuring how things come together, how they change. In cooking there are some chemical reactions and changes in texture. You read and write, learning the recipes.’’

And if you want to take the recipe home, she points out, you need paper. Letters and numbers are not abstractions, but useful ways of sharing your accomplishments.

The importance of getting youngsters to eat more healthfully has helped stimulate other local programs, such as the Kitchen Coach program in Scituate, which gives children lessons in cooking with vegetables. In Hanover, the South Shore YMCA’s Mill Pond Branch has called in a local organic farmer to teach children in its after-school program how to grow vegetables. Youngsters there plant tomatoes and other vegetables — foods that might end up on their dinner plate — in container gardens. And retailers have also jumped on to the idea. Whole Foods Market recently held a “Healthy Eating’’ cooking class for parents and youngsters of all ages on ways to incorporate “colorful vegetables’’ into their diet, at its Legacy Place store in Dedham.

In New Hampshire, the Early Sprouts curriculum has spread from the Child Development Center at Keene State College to half a dozen Head Start schools and other preschools, including Head Start centers in Keene, Nashua, and Manchester. These schools report good feedback from parents on the program’s success in getting their children to open up to vegetables.

Learning Circle families are also reporting meal-time success. Jenifer Harrison in Sharon wrote to the school that she got “goose bumps’’ watching her son eat food from a recipe developed by the Early Sprouts program.

“My son, a child who has never been adventurous with food and has always stayed far away from veggies, ate two helpings of vegetables,’’ Harrison wrote. “We made the cheddar and chard quesadillas tonight with our dinner, and he not only tried them, he even dipped them in the salsa.’’

The Early Sprouts butternut squash muffin-making class is a peaceable kingdom. Voices are quiet and supportive. “I like the way you’re cooperating,’’ teacher Lapal says.

The youngsters offer their observations freely.

“It looks like play dough,’’ one says of the muffin mix.

Then the eggs are added.

“It looks slimy right now,’’ says another.

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.

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