Head Start Tots Learn About Soil, Worms, Gardening and Food at Lenox Hill House Rooftop Garden

NYC Foodscape is very pleased to add the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House to its current garden education projects. Lenox Hill House is a 119-year-old settlement house that “provides an extensive array of effective and integrated human services—social, educational, legal, health, housing, mental health, nutritional and fitness—which significantly improve the lives of 20,000 people in need each year, ages 3 to 103, on the East Side of Manhattan.” Among its programmatic and site features is a beautiful and well-conceived rooftop garden that provides gardening and cooking curriculum activities for youth served by the organization, as well as providing some extra produce to the site’s very large and state-of-the-art kitchen that serves over 300,000 healthy, fresh and enjoyable meals 365 days a year to people in need, including children, homeless and formerly homeless adults and seniors.

The garden was created last year and has been a huge success. NYC Foodscape is helping manage the 2015 garden season and the Head Start health and wellness garden education curriculum by:

  • Developing and enhancing curriculum materials
  • Preparing workshops
  • Giving hands-on garden and cooking demonstration and learning to very young children, ages 3-5
  • Keeping the garden healthy and productive.

Here are photos of the rooftop garden in early May, just before classes began:

Lenox Hill Neighborhood House Rooftop Garden 
Asian green mix
Lenox Hill Neighborhood House Garden with growing fence
Mixed lettuce bed
Lovage plant















Tree blossoms
Grape vines, pre-grapes

Head Start Classes Learn Gardening Basics

This 3-year old loves mint!

Eight classes of kids, ages 3-4, come to the roof garden regularly to learn about the basics of soil, seeds, worms and insects, plant parts, transplanting, growing, tending, harvesting and eating. The classes have names as adorable as the tiny tots themselves:

  • Dolphin
  • Sunflower
  • Butterfly
  • Ocean Breeze
  • Silvermoon
  • Rainbow
  • Sunshine
  • Starlight





Here are a few subjects we’ve covered so far:

Soil and Worm Exploration

In this very basic introductory lesson, we talked about where our fruits and vegetables grow, the soil, and its components. Specifically, we:

  • Discussed the importance of soil in our lives.
  • Examined closely what soil is made of.
  • Met our friends the worms who make our soil healthy and rich
Kids saw and touched the various components of soil
Our worms’ second home
Let’s look under the roof
Our soil’s best friends, the worms
Worms have a healthy diet!

We also read a poem about why the soil is the best place for worms to live:

A Worm In My Pocket
By Jodee Samano

One rainy day on my way home from school,
I found a big worm and thought it was cool.

I picked up the worm with my bare hand,
held it up high thinking how grand!

The worm was so cute and wiggled a lot,
I put him in my pocket to show Mom what I’d caught.

What will she say when I show her my find?
Will she let me keep it? I hope she won’t mind.

Mom was in the kitchen when I showed her what I’d found.
She screamed, “No, way! Put it back in the ground!”

Now I’m so angry, she always says “No,”
If she won’t let me keep it, then I will just go!

So me and my worm packed a sandwich or two,
ran out the door and down the street we both flew.

We walked to the park and sat on a bench,
I pulled out my worm and noticed a stench.

He looked kind of floppy, but wiggled a bit,
I thought, “Oh my Gosh, my worm is not fit!”

I laid him in the dirt and let him go free.
I guess that my pocket was not the best place to be.

Worm Portraits by Mini-Artists in Residence

Imagine my delight when one class returned to the garden with drawings of their new worm friends they had made for just for me!

Prized collection of children’s worm drawings


Life Cycle of Beans

In this lesson, we talked about beans and how they grow. We also marveled how we can eat beans both as the seeds themselves and as fresh green beans.

Bean parts Green BeanDifferent color string beans








Different Color Beans


As well as reading the rather frightening tale of Jack and the Beanstalk, the children also learned about the legend of the Three Sisters. According to Native American legend, corn, beans, and squash are three inseparable sisters who only grow and thrive together. There are numerous variations of the legend, but the overarching theme is that corn must grow in community with other crops rather than on its own – it needs the beneficial company and aide of its companions. This tradition of interplanting corn, beans and squash in the same mounds, widespread among Native American farming societies, is actually a very sophisticated, sustainable system that provided long-term soil fertility and a healthy diet to generations.

The three types crops help each other grow. Corn provides a natural pole for bean vines to climb. Beans fix nitrogen on their roots, improving the overall fertility of the plot by providing nitrogen to the following years corn. Bean vines also help stabilize the corn plants, making them less vulnerable to blowing over in the wind. Shallow-rooted squash vines become a living mulch, shading emerging weeds and preventing soil moisture from evaporating, thereby improving the overall crops chances of survival in dry years. Spiny squash plants also help discourage predators from approaching the corn and beans. The corn, beans and squash together provide a well-balanced combination of nutrients and protein, a complete meal: the corn provides the grain carbohydrates, the beans the protein and lots of vitamins, and the squash a host of nutrients as well, including Vitamin C, B vitamins, carotene and potassium. And finally, the large amount of crop residue from this planting combination can be incorporated back into the soil at the end of the season, to build up the organic matter and improve its structure.

Here’s one shorter version of the legend, courtesy of Cornell Cooperative Extension:

The Legend of Three Sisters

The Native American legend of the Three Sisters vary from tribe to tribe. This version below is taken from an oral account by Lois Thomas of Cornwall Island, compiled by students at Centennial College and found in “Indian Legends of Eastern Canada” and is found on a number of Web sites, including several of those listed in Additional Resources below.

A long time ago there were three sisters who lived together in a field. These sisters were quite different from one another in their size and way of dressing. The little sister was so young that she could only crawl at first, and she was dressed in green. The second sister wore a bright yellow dress, and she had a way of running off by herself when the sun shone and the soft wind blew in her face.

The third was the eldest sister, standing always very straight and tall above the other sisters and trying to protect them. She wore a pale green shawl, and she had long, yellow hair that tossed about her head in the breeze.

There was one way the sisters were all alike, though. They loved each other dearly, and they always stayed together. This made them very strong.

One day a stranger came to the field of the Three Sisters – a Mohawk boy. He talked to the birds and other animals – this caught the attention of the three sisters. Late that summer, the youngest and smallest sister disappeared. Her sisters were sad.

Again the Mohawk boy came to the field to gather reeds at the water’s edge. The two sisters who were left watched his moccasin trail, and that night the second sister – the one in the yellow dress – disappeared as well.

Now the Elder Sister was the only one left.

She continued to stand tall in her field. When the Mohawk boy saw that she missed her sisters, he brought them all back together and they became stronger together, again.

Planting Beans and Patience

On another day, we reviewed the beans and the children planted beans and edamame. They are eagerly watching for the seedlings to emerge from the earth and can’t wait to eat the beans that they grow.

Planting edamame
Planting pole beans






















We also sang an amusingly silly song, Beans in My Ears, made popular by the late great folk singer, Pete Seeger (click here for video), who was also a big supporter of community gardens and children’s environmental learning:

Beans in My Ears Lyrics

Pete Seeger at New York City Community Garden Coalition  Mayoral Forum

My mommy said not to put beans in my ears
Beans in my ears, beans in my ears
My mommy said not to put beans in my ears
Beans in my ears

Now why would I want to put beans in my ears
Beans in my ears, beans in my ears
Now why would I want to put beans in my ears
Beans in my ears

You can’t hear the teacher with beans in your ears
Beans in your ears, beans in your ears
You can’t hear the teacher with beans in your ears
Beans in your ears

What’s that you say, let’s put beans in our ears
Beans in our ears, beans in our ears
What’s that you say, let’s put beans in our ears
Beans in our ears

You’ll have to speak up I got beans in my ears
Beans in my ears, beans in my ears
You’ll have to speak up I got beans in my ears
Beans in her ears

Say mommy we’ve gone and put beans in our ears
Beans in our ears, beans in our ears
Say mommy we’ve gone and put beans in our ears
Beans in our ears

That’s nice boys just don’t put those beans in your ears
Beans in our ears, beans in our ears
That’s nice boys just don’t put those beans in your ears
Beans in our ears

I think that all grown ups have beans in their ears
Beans in their ears, beans in their ears
I think that all grown ups have beans in their ears
Beans in their ears

Learning the Parts of a Plant

Next up, we learned all the different parts of plants and how we can eat some parts of some plants and not of others. For example, we reviewed the bean lesson and how we eat the bean seed and pod, but we don’t eat the leaves, roots or stem. We also looked at a tomato plant and talked about how the only part of the tomato that we eat was the fruit.

Tomato partsWith the help of information from the Virginia Cooperative Extension, we brainstormed the various parts of the plant that we can eat:

Parts of Plants Roots

Foods We Eat That Are Roots:

Sweet Potato



Foods We Eat That Are Stems: Parts of Plants Stems

Bamboo Shoots
Bok Choy




Foods We Eat That Are Leaves: Parts of Plants Leaves

Brussels Sprouts
Turnip Greens
Mustard Greens


Foods We Eat That Are Flowers: Parts of Plants Flowers







Foods We Eat That Are Seeds:Parts of Plants Seeds

Lima Beans
Pinto Beans
Pumpkin Seeds
Kidney Beans
Black Beans
Sunflower Seeds
Dry Split Peas
Butter Beans


Foods We Eat That Are Fruit: Parts of Plants Fruit

Bell Pepper

In an upcoming class, when more of the vegetables are ripe, we will make a salad that has at least one vegetable or fruit from each of the different parts of the plant in it.

The kids also took a marching tour around the garden and as we called out names of plants, they had to guess which part of the plant we ate and whether they were roots, stems, leaves, seeds, flowers or fruit.

Grape vines beginning to bear fruit
Concord grapes close up
Snow peas are ready!
The hint of purple in the blueberries
Tomato plants beginning to climb towards the fence


We harvested along the way and the kids compared their haul and were very excited to bring their bounty back to the class to eat with the teacher.

Teacher holds lettuce bouquet
Look what I found!
Sharing a moment of crunchy deliciousness
I’m rich with produce!
This kidoodle loves to harvest


Raising a Seed to Plant and to a Meal

Earlier this season, some of the kids started plants in their classroom to take home or to bring to the rooftop garden. This lesson in tending a plant from seed to harvest will not just provide the kids with a sense of satisfaction for raising their own food but a sense of responsibility over a project from beginning to end, and an early glimpse at the cycle of life.

Alice’s cucumber starts to climb
Jessica’s cucumber
























Tiny melon for tiny tots

So far a very satisfying project, to say the least. We’ll keep you up to date on the how these young minds and palates grow and develop over the summer.


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