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Learning Through Play on the Farm: A Conversation With the Education Team from Amber Waves

Last week, we were so grateful to host our first in-person event since the pandemic began. The R & R team traveled to Amber Waves, an ocean-side farm that unites food and community with the mission to provide rich educational opportunities in agriculture for aspiring growers, thoughtful cooks, and eaters of all ages. During our visit we got to meet educators Ann Jones Levine and Kristen Himmelberg in their outdoor classroom on the farm. We asked them to tell us about the work that they do, their perspective about the power of outdoor play and ways to connect children to nature, no matter where you live!
                                                                                                                                        
1. Your outdoor classroom offers children and their families meaningful opportunities to harvest, cook, craft, and even help out with farm chores. We were thrilled to learn that children are invited to dig for worms, help compost and feed the chickens! What are your main goals when creating outdoor programming for families on the farm?

Our main goal is to create a safe space for curious, fun exploration. We are so passionate about having children and families get comfortable with the look, smell, taste and feel of fresh food. We provide kids with the experience of being able to see a plants full life span from seed to plate. For example, children that come to our program have had the opportunity to seed and plant zucchini in our rich soil, weed and water the plant, and then pick it fresh to cook it in our outdoor kitchen. We live in a compartmentalized world, and finding time to be on the farm shows the interconnectedness of food and health. Whether it be related to finding worms in the healthy soil, hand-feeding chickens kale to improve the quality of the eggs they lay, making recycled seed cups from old newspaper for planting seedlings or harvesting a cucumber only to make pickles a few minutes later; we want children to be a part of the magical process.

Naturally grown ups and children alike will take their eyes off the screen when they see something beautiful to look at on the farm; suddenly their senses come alive, ultimately allowing them to feel truly connected to something bigger than themselves. I would say that a sense of connectivity is one of our main goals with our education program.

2. Do you have any suggestions for families who live in urban environments or families who aren’t able to visit agricultural settings regularly? What are some ways parents can help children feel connected to nature and understand the importance of sustainability?

There are so many wonderful ways to explore the natural world. It can be as simple as looking outside your window for ten minutes and writing down what you see - what kinds of bugs, birds, and trees do you have living around you? Or it is as simple as observing the sky at a certain time everyday. What are the clouds and the sun doing? You can even observe at different times of day; i.e. morning and night, and compare the differences. Paying closer attention to the natural world around you connects you to it!

For more of a hands-on approach you could get a compost roller for a back porch or to share with neighbors, order some red wiggler worms and start a compost bin by recycling table food scraps. After about six months the scraps turn into healthy, rich soil that you can plant seeds in. You can also get a couple of pots, add soil, decide what seeds to plant, water regularly and watch your plant grow. There are so many edible plants that are easy to grow indoors, herbs are a great place to start for beginners. Another fun thing to do with kids is you can do is try to regrow your lettuce heads, celery or carrots by placing the bottom of the vegetable in a cup of water and over time, watch it sprout! Here’s a great resource for that:

Or get a book on plants and walk around the neighborhood Identifying plants growing in the cracks of the sidewalk, note their resilience and how they add nutrients to unbalanced soil, or discover their root systems and stages of growth. Not all weeds are bad, many are medicinal. A fun thing to do with kids is let them go out and sketch the plants they see. Spend time in parks and use your senses when walking down the street or when visiting a community garden or urban farm. Look for opportunities to volunteer at one of these local garden spaces. Get your hands a little dirty, it’s fun we promise!

3. At Amber Waves, there are so many ways to gather as a community- from full moon farm dinners to volunteer days. How has the Amber Waves community grown throughout the years?

Amber Waves started with farmers Katie Baldwin and Amanda Merrow as a small, two person pizza farm and has grown to include over 280 CSA members, a thriving market, and transitioned into the educational farm you see today. The local and visiting community supports a robust farmer apprenticeship program training future farmers and an outdoor classroom for young children.  Amber Waves has become a true community hub for Amagansett town. The original CSA members now visit with their kids in tow and send their kids to Amagansett School where they attend classes each week in the outdoor classroom. Some of the kids from Amagansett School that came here for lower and middle school classes are now working at the farm. Recently, we expanded our program of giving back to the community through our donations to the local food pantry. With this program we give over 100 families full bags of produce once a week. We have truly come full circle and we are so fortunate to be able to serve the community in all of these varied ways.

4. We’d love to hear more about your “community of eaters”! Any favorite anecdotes about children preparing meals in your outdoor kitchen- from start to finish- and how it’s impacted their attitude towards fresh, nourishing food?

Children are always honest about what they like and don’t like. We try to encourage them to try things and honor different taste buds. That being said, when kids really like something they haven’t tried before, it feels like a big victory! For example, last week kids were eating zucchini and summer squash raw after picking it and chopping it themselves. One kid said "I can taste the sunshine!” What we see through our classes too is that when the kids enjoy certain new vegetables and food the parents change their eating habits to include these new things as well! One of the perks of Amber Waves is that many parents are also CSA members and so they can come harvest with the children all together outside of class time to further reinforce this type of experience.

5. Parents and children often look forward to summer and the outdoor experiences they share during this time. Do you have any tips to help families continue learning and playing outdoors throughout the year? Also, what is your favorite season at Amber Waves and why?

The Summer is a very special season, especially when people make time to be together. Each of the seasons have their own special qualities and kids embrace them all. We love the hopeful, preparatory Spring, the lush, heated and hurried Summer and the coolness of Fall which renews our weariness and offers many beautiful vegetables to harvest and enjoy. September is a favorite with its crisp and peaceful days. To celebrate this time we love harvesting ingredients to make fresh soup to share in the field with children.

Saving seeds in the Fall to use for Spring also offers chances to have great conversations with kids and to understand the beautiful, sustainable design of the plant. Breaking apart garlic for the garlic planting gets us thinking about the next season. Winter brings rest for the farmers and this rhythm connects us all. Although the farmers might disagree with this idea of rest, despite being tucked under blankets in the cold of Winter, farmers are always thinking about the next season.

Parents can read stories about seeds and vegetables to get children excited about Spring, paying attention to the names of the monthly full moons that predict the cycle of the Earth (wolf moon, snow moon, worm moon, etc), and the excitement that comes when the soil is warm enough for worms because plants come soon after.

You can also try to plant indoors during the winter months, it is a fun trial and error for families. And when going to the grocery store in the Winter months, look to see what wonderful farmer has grown your food in a warmer climate somewhere in the world. Food brings us all together.
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