Longfellow students foster vocabulary, plants through new gardening club

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The to-do list for the inaugural KinderGARDEN Club meeting at Longfellow Elementary may have been somewhat ambitious:

  • Clear the soil

  • Create raised garden beds with potting mixes

  • Introduce worms to the garden beds

  • Plant flower and vegetable seeds

Or so English Language teacher Kristin Cimaglia thought.

“The students jumped right in on day one,” said Cimaglia, who launched the gardening club this year. “They were so excited. They grabbed the tools and started digging and raking. We had a lot of students who were afraid of worms and before I knew it they were enthusiastically searching for and even holding worms.”

Thanks to a $3,000 Westerville Education Foundation (WEF) grant, the club provides kindergarteners a connection to the words they are reading in books, an opportunity to spend time outside working and an experience they may not have at home. For her students whose first language is not English, gardening offers an authentic way to help foster their language skills. 

“The language of gardening is universal,” she said. “It’s accessible for everyone. It’s hands-on and visual.”

An avid gardener, Cimaglia was inspired to start the club after she created an indoor garden in her classroom last year, planting seeds in Dixie cups that corresponded with letters in the alphabet. For example, she started her garden with apple seeds, followed by beans, carrot seeds and delphinium seeds. Her kale grew so large students were able to sample the leafy vegetable.

With the KinderGARDEN club, she can now work with students on creating a garden on a larger scale outside.

“It’s about providing authentic learning experiences for students,” she said.

Interest in the club has exceeded expectations; Cimaglia had to create two groups to meet on separate days after 30 students signed up to participate. The WEF grant covers gardening supplies, tools and aprons for all participants.

The club has garnered interest outside of the school as well. Sustainable Westerville reached out to Cimaglia about partnering with students to work on their garden plot near the school in Cherrington Park.

“This would be my garden club dream — to have community involvement and give back to the community,” she said.

The club met for the first time before the start of school last Friday and Monday. Staff including classroom teachers, the health aide, and the custodian all worked with students as they planted bulbs, created raised garden beds with potting soil, and added worms to help improve the soil and provide nutrients for the plants.

Students crouched as they tended to an existing garden on the school’s property with hand-held rakes and shovels. 

“With all the plants and the words we’re using, the vocabulary options are endless with ‘digging’ and ‘bulbs’ and ‘dirt’ and ‘worms’ and ‘slimy,’” Cimaglia said. “All of these words have a connection to the real world.”