Little green thumbs make big dreams

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Beginning their kitchen garden program in 2021, Vista Valley Kindergarten in Victoria now have a flourishing veggie patch and some excited little gardeners eagerly monitoring their freshly grown produce. Despite starting with limited gardening resources, the teaching team powered through, building on what they had and never giving up on their dream of intertwining their kitchen and garden to deliver hands-on learning.

We interviewed Emilia Boussioutas and Arety Mavritsakis, educators at Vista Valley, who took us on a journey through their kitchen garden program, from its small beginnings to big hopes for the future.

Read on to learn more about how this kindergarten started small and are dreaming big with their kitchen garden!  

Q: Can you share a special story from your kitchen garden program?

“The kitchen garden program empowers the children to take ownership of their own learning and guides educators on what to plan for next. There are so many moments that just make us think: what were we doing before this program to give these children such engaging, hands-on, life-changing experiences?

On so many occasions the children come up to us and ask, ‘Can we water the garden today and see if our vegetables have grown?’ – their eyes curious and minds racing.

When the broccoli and cauliflower started to sprout, the children were so excited they came over to the educators shouting, ‘The garden’s growing, the garden’s growing, we can see it – here’s the broccoli and cauliflower’.

An activity making labels for the garden came from the children. They talked and laughed together, commenting positively on each other’s drawings and attempts to write the words. It was so much more than a ‘making labels experience’ and it led to an abundance of opportunities to learn.

We had one child who said, ‘I hate tomatoes.’ On our Italian day when we made margherita pizzas, he had a try after some coaxing from educators and seeing his friends eating the pizza, and, to his delight, he loved it! Even his parents came the next day, shocked and so grateful for such a positive experience.”

Q: How did you start?

“Our motivation started with a past educator, Bruna, who was passionate about sharing her love for the garden with the children. Bruna loved to potter around in the garden, weeding, watering, and just giving the children the opportunity to get their hands dirty. Once Bruna retired, the garden became secondary.

We then had a wonderful incursion with The Sage Garden, which reignited the flame to include the garden and kitchen in our curriculum once again. The children were so engaged, and so many conversations, interests and opportunities came out of this one experience.

Prior to joining the Kitchen Garden Program, we ran one-off kitchen and garden experiences, but we knew that we could do better; we just needed some direction and confidence. 

Our 3-year-old teacher, Emilia, was given the opportunity to be on the advisory group for the Kitchen Garden Program for early childhood. This became our motivation to sign up to the program and embed its philosophy into our own philosophy and programs, focusing on each educator’s strengths.

Emilia has a love for the garden and took it upon herself to include garden experiences for the children. Arety, our 4-year-old teacher, is passionate about cooking and incorporates her love of Greek food as part of her cooking experiences. Another educator, Kelly, loves to grow and cook organic home-grown veggies and is committed to sharing this with the children.

The educators have been the main drivers for the program, but we have had parents and volunteers jump on board for various periods of time.” 

Q: What did you start with?

“Initially we started with kitchen experiences. The educators at the time included simple experiences that were easy to set up. For example:

  • Making lemonade with donated lemons from Pappou’s garden
  • Making minestrone soup using donated vegetables from families
  • Making milkshakes, scones, and pikelets on special visitor days.

Families have always been active participants in our program and are encouraged to be part of cooking experiences. We’ve had many families come in to cook with the children. Parents have come in to make sushi and souvlaki, and we’ve had grandmothers come in to make kolouria (Greek biscuits) and dyed eggs at Easter.

Our kitchen is for use by adults only, and includes a stove, fridge, and all the essential appliances. For cooking with the children, we set up a table in the kindergarten room with all the ingredients and utensils needed for the activity. We discuss what's needed the day before so that we can be set up ready to go on the day. We rotate different groups through the activity, so that all children can participate in the cooking. And of course, everyone has the opportunity to taste the dish once it's ready! 

Garden experiences have been a bit more limited due to resources and time. We started focusing on watering plants in the surrounding kindergarten environment. We were then fortunate to initiate a relationship with a local secondary college who came and built three planter boxes in our garden, where we planted fruit trees – mandarin, orange, plum, and lemon - which are now part of our orchard.

Our fundraising committee approached our local Bunnings for donations. They very kindly donated two new planter boxes which we’ve installed in a position that works well for growing veggies and for access for teaching experiences.

We try to plant to the seasons, using the Foundation's member portal, the Shared Table, to help us decide what to plant when. Right now, we have plenty of lettuce and herbs growing. We are propagating rosemary and also germinating seeds in our new, make-shift greenhouse (first time doing this!) We plan to start planting these seedlings out in late September. We’ve started tomatoes, radishes, silverbeet and marigolds in the greenhouse, and we also have snowpea seeds germinating outdoors, which were sown on an excursion to Bundoora Park farm a couple of weeks ago." 

Q: How has the program changed over time?

"When we started the program, we completed the Foundation’s Trellis tool, which gave us a clear understanding of where we were at and what we hoped to achieve. We also set up a time to chat with Laura, the Kitchen Garden Foundation’s early childhood coordinator, who gave us some great ideas to begin our journey. 

Initially we thought that Kitchen Garden Program experiences had to have a planting or cooking focus, and be consistent and frequent. After implementing the Program, we have realised that there is so much more learning to be had, and not only with hands-on activities.

We realised that the Kitchen Garden Program can address all areas of the curriculum and can easily be included in the planning cycle. It provides a compendium of resources which allow us to engage and explore learning with our children and community in so many ways. The Program gives us freedom to include, adapt and align our philosophy with embedded practice. Our program is planned for, yet spontaneous and inclusive of child-led interest and educator-led learning.

Since becoming a part of the Kitchen Garden Program and attending the Foundation's professional development workshops, we have a stronger understanding on how to implement the program and what can be included as pleasurable food experiences. We are gardening, planting, and cooking with more confidence than before. We look for the opportunities to include sustainable practice each day into all areas of the curriculum.

Our Program has also evolved to include excursions for the children and family gardening days at the kindergarten. Recently the 4-year-old group visited Bundoora Park Farm where children extended their learning about composting, worm farming, planting and where food comes from.”

Q: How do you currently fund your program?

“We are a not-for-profit kindergarten run by a parent committee of management. They are very supportive of the Program as they have seen the positive impact it has had on their children. The committee has held fundraising activities to help fund the cost of the Program. We also sell produce from our garden for gold coin donations, such as bunches of rosemary, parsley and of course our worm wee!

We have also asked our community – parents, retailers, and council – for voluntary donations of seeds, seedlings, compost, and funds. We have been fortunate to have the support of the Foundation, our committee, and parents to enable us to continue this amazing program.

We also apply for grant funding when an opportunity arises – we are currently applying for a $150,000 Department of Education minor infrastructure grant to achieve our goal of having an indigenous and sensory garden in our kindergarten.”

Q: Can you describe the sessions you run?

“We currently run the program with our 3-year-old Caterpillar Group and 4-year-old Butterfly Group. Sessions usually run for up to 30 minutes, depending on what it is we are focusing on – cooking experiences may go for longer. We rotate the children in smaller groups so that they all have the opportunity to be involved.  

In a recent cooking session with our Butterfly Group, we made minestrone soup. The children each brought in an ingredient and helped wash, peel and chop these into the pot. They were able to use children’s knives to help cut the vegetables which they loved. We added borlotti beans, diced tomatoes, and small macaroni pasta. The staff cooked it in the kitchen, and we all enjoyed minestrone soup for lunch.

The children gave feedback which was quite funny - some children loved it, most liked the pasta, and some stopped at one spoonful. Based on the children’s feedback, we are planning to make pasta for our next activity in Term 4, on our Italian day.

Some experiences are projects that run over several weeks. Each term, we plan for around four to six opportunities and projects. Earlier in the term, both groups planted herb and lettuce seedlings in the garden beds. This was done in small groups so that all children were able to participate. We talked about the colours of the seedlings, the roots growing and why they are important, and how the plants now needed sun and water to grow.

The children water the plants independently by filling the watering cans, which hang off the planter boxes, at the children’s water pump which is connected to our rainwater tank. It is so rewarding for the staff and parents to see the children taking ownership.

Our experiences with the 3-year-old group are still slightly limited due to supervision requirements, time constraints and the children's ability to focus for longer periods. However, we continue to plan, make time, and include simplified experiences for all the children, to develop their application for sustainable practices and pleasurable food experiences. 

Our 4-year-old group have many opportunities to participate in all experiences as they attend for longer hours, we have additional staff working with the group, and the children are more engaged and excited to participate.

Our Kitchen Garden Program is now embedded in our sessions. Educators are more informed and confident, and the children are taking ownership of sustainable practices: bringing in seeds to plant, looking after the garden, watering, saving food scraps and feeding the worms. The children are also now going home and educating their own families about positive food habits and the health benefits of the food we grow and eat from our garden.

Every day presents opportunities for new learning, research, critical thinking, extending on literacy and numeracy, sustainable practices, and science exploration.

Our Program is planned and incorporated into all aspects of the children’s learning. However, we do need to be flexible and spontaneous in line with the interests of the children and, of course, the time of year.”

Q: What is your vision for the program?

“Our philosophy is our vision:

Vista Valley Kindergarten supports all children to develop a sense of place, identity and connection to the land and the natural world, through education and learning to care for the physical and social environments, contributing to a sustainable future. We promote opportunities for all children to play, learn, grow, and make choices that influence their learning and wellbeing. We envisage creating a more varied garden incorporating indigenous plants and foods. We look forward to incorporating more of a sensory focus into our existing space so that we can be more inclusive for all children. We hope to create a peaceful natural environment where pleasurable food experiences continue to form part of everyday education.” 

Q: What are the benefits of your Kitchen Garden Program for the children you’re working with?

"The Program guides practice and is a community hub of experience, information, guidance, and ideas. The Program fundamentals and workbooks are aligned with the Victorian early years learning and development framework (VEYLDF) and the early years learning framework (EYLF), which makes it easy to incorporate and document learning for the children.

We constantly use the Shared Table for information, advice, and to document our experiences. We recently used the Shared Table in our assessment and rating process to show our journey and how we have embedded practice into our program, achieving an exceeding rating. 

The children thrive on our hands-on, play-based program. They are all encouraged and able to participate in both garden and kitchen experiences.”

Q: What have some of your challenges been?

“Our committee of management changes yearly, and consistency and commitment from parents has been difficult. We have now opened the Program to all parents and volunteers, past and present. We are also proposing to have a place on our committee of management for a Kitchen Garden Program Officer, who will work with educators and the wider community to ensure we can provide the very best Program for our children.

We also face financial challenges. Our fundraising has meant we’ve been able to put aside money from selling produce to cover incursions and our membership in the future.”

Q: Do you have any tips for those just starting out?

“Just start!

When we commenced, we had all these ideas about what a Kitchen Garden Program should look like, but fairly soon we realised that everything we did related to the philosophy and learnings of the Kitchen Garden Program. Be guided by the mantra of ‘everything can be included and form part of a Kitchen Garden Program.’ 

We started with whatever we had and now we dream about what we hope to achieve!”

Q: Do you have any tips for the longevity of a program?

"Once educators and families observe the benefits, they will become your Program's strongest advocates.

Recognise strengths in your own community, staff, families, and children, to lead the learning and take ownership, enabling the program to sustain itself. Partnerships and shared responsibility are key to keeping the program alive.”


Members can see more photos from Vista Valley Kindergarten on the Shared Table.

This story is part of a series, published in celebration of Kitchen Garden Month, with the aim of spotlighting Kitchen Garden Program member schools that started small and dreamt BIG!

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