Sitting contentedly in the soil, 5-year-old Frederick Madsen pulled a red crayon from his Crayola box and began sketching the blossoming poppy flower he had just hand-picked.
"The best way to pick the flowers is actually right at the stem," his teacher, Mark Walter, had told him only moments before.
Frederick was one of a handful of children connecting with nature at Waltham Fields Community Farm yesterday afternoon during the farm’s Children’s Learning Garden program. The program teaches grade school children lessons in agriculture, showing them how to plant, grow and harvest vegetables and plants. "I really believe in getting kids outdoors and getting their hands dirty," said Walter, who is in his second year of running the summer program.
This summer represents the first year of a partnership between the farm and the city’s Recreation Department, aimed at expanding the Children’s Learning Garden. The weekly program, which runs June through August, has more than doubled in size this year - serving 160 kids compared to about 75 last year - according to Meg Coward, the farm’s executive director.
"The parents that I have received feedback from are just ecstatic," said Kim Hebert, a supervisor in the Recreation Department.
Hebert said the Children’s Learning Garden offers children and their parents something different than the usual summer activities focused on sports or drama classes. Hebert said the department is looking to expand the program even further for next year.
Excited children followed Walter into a row of cherry tomatoes in the expansive fields off Beaver Street yesterday. Plucking nearly ripened tomatoes from the vine, the children listened as Walter led them onto a field of flowers. Each of them had "farm journals" with notes and pictures of the vegetables and plants they are learning about.
Her long dark ponytail tucked through a baseball cap, farm intern Anna Wei encouraged the children and answered their questions as they chose flowers to sketch. Wei is going into her junior year of environmental studies at Mount Holyoke College and began volunteering with the children’s program at the farm in early June.
"I think this is just a great opportunity for kids to be reconnected to the outdoors - especially food," Wei said. "They love it when they get to taste the vegetables."
As if to demonstrate Wei’s observation, 7-year-old Isabel Savine walked among the fields devouring an edible weed called lambs quarters and freshly picked clusters to her friends.
"I love this," Isabel said, munching on some greens. "I think I’m going to cook it with some spices and see if it tastes like spinach."
Near the end of the day, Walter led the kids to a pumpkin patch they planted in early June. Children ran to huddle around him when Walter spotted the first pumpkin sprouting up. To maintain the patch, several children pulled up weeds while others crowded around a friend who discovered an earthworm.
"I like pulling up the weeds," said Rowane Morton, who was clad in green gardening gloves and a white sun hat.
Rowane said his parents are making him his own "secret garden" at home.
Just as the hot sun faded and it started to rain, Wei passed out individual potted plants to the children for them to take care of at home.
Monday marks the last week of this summer’s program. Parents parked at the edge of the field to bring home their dirt-covered but smiling children.
"They do a wonderful job here," said Elizabeth Brown, Madsen’s mother, adding that her son comes to the farm with their dog, Emma, just to go for walks since they live down the street.
"He goes to other day camps too and I pick him up early just to come here."
For more information on the Waltham Fields Community Farm, visit http://www.communityfarms.org.
Nicole Haley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 781-398-8004