The blessings of the summer slowdown

In Short

While we know we will continue to learn and explore in our outdoor spaces during the school year, the magic of summer and camp days spent observing and being in nature seem to pass by all too fast.

Two years after the COVID-19 pandemic began, we find ourselves at our Jewish early childhood center in Port Washington, N.Y., reaping the benefits of the “great outdoors.” Pre-pandemic, our outdoor classroom space lay dormant for a large portion of the year. Our seasoned teachers were creatures of habit, making magic in the classrooms and exploring our 12-acre property only sporadically outside of their regular playground time. Since the reopening of schools in September of 2020, however, our school structure was inverted and what was once inside, was reimagined outdoors. Tents were erected throughout the property and teachers and students alike adapted to a new learning environment rife with opportunities to learn outdoors and to appreciate nature on a whole new level. Since those early days, the ways in which our classes interact with our outdoor spaces has changed dramatically. Teachers have expanded their lessons to include outdoor time for play and exploration, separate and apart from the daily time they spend on the playground. Within the context of our outdoor education curriculum, the teachers have been masterful at weaving our core Jewish values into time spent outside.

Our outdoor learning curriculum teaches our “littlest learners” the value of shomrei adamah, that we are all “keepers of the earth,” responsible for the protection and renewal of our world. We strive to help young children understand what this means by allowing them to participate in harvesting our outdoor garden. We are lucky enough to have a garden on our property that over the years has produced everything from tomatoes, to peppers, basil and other herbs. The children are taught to recognize when our vegetables are ripe for picking, and they help by picking, sorting and counting the bounty they harvest. A garden is a wonderful place to weave in not only Jewish values, but also basic mathematical concepts like counting and sorting by size, shape and color. Our toddlers enjoy pointing out the differences between the red tomatoes and the green ones, and are able to identify which vegetables are larger or smaller than others. On a social-emotional level, gardening helps to remind the children that we need to have patience as we wait for our vegetables to fully ripen before picking. Because summertime allows us to be outside a great deal, our campers are able to observe the daily changes in the garden. After a weekend especially, the children are often amazed by the ripening of a tomato that just a few days earlier was green. When it finally is time to pick, the excitement the children feel is palatable. For anyone who has ever spent time with a group of preschoolers, waiting and having patience are not easy concepts to grasp. Waiting IS hard!

The final line of the birkat hamazon, ends with hazan et hakol. In reciting this blessing, we thank G-d for help in feeding everyone and teaching us to share the bounty. The children at our ECC proudly carry baskets and buckets out to the garden to help transport the vegetables back inside. The teachers help them to gently pick the ripe vegetables, and to leave the ones that are not quite ready for next time. The children are also taught to treat the plants gently and to pick the vegetable from the vines in such a way as to not damage the vegetable or hurt the plant. This is a serious job that requires children to focus their attention and to slow down.  

As the weather turns colder, we encourage the children to observe the changes that occur naturally when the plants no longer provide for us in the same way they did all summer long. We are blessed to have a dedicated member of our synagogue community who helps maintain the garden all year round. Mr. Roger can often be observed trimming and watering and checking on our garden for us while the children and staff are busy during camp. During the spring, when the weather warms up, Mr. Roger returns, and the children know when they see him that it’s time to tend the garden again.

Teaching young children to share is most often discussed within the context of sharing toys or snacks. During the summer months we have a unique opportunity to use our community garden as a point of reference to highlight other ways we can share. Initially after we first pick our vegetables, we provide the children with the opportunity to taste them straight from the garden. The rest of the harvest we save and share with individuals in our community who may not have access to fresh vegetables like we do. Our school partners with Plant a Row for the Hungry, a national people-helping-people program that encourages gardeners to grow a little extra and donate the produce to local soup kitchens and food pantries serving the homeless and hungry in their local communities. In Port Washington, our dedicated team of parent volunteers at the school help to transport the fresh vegetables to a central location who then shares the harvest with local food pantries in need. The children are able to see firsthand how sharing from our garden makes a difference in our community.  

During the summer months, not only do we enjoy gardening on our property, our ECC children have the opportunity to help save local monarch butterflies. This summer our three-year old campers “adopted” over 50 fully grown caterpillars. More recently, the children took on an additional 15 baby caterpillars when they were just one day old. The Jewish value of ohev et ha briyot teaches us to love all creatures. As the children watch the caterpillars transform in their various stages, they learn about what it means to love and care for others. While the caterpillars require a different kind of care, the basic principles remain the same. Additionally, caring for caterpillars requires that the children practice patience as they wait and watch for the caterpillars to grow and change. The wonder and awe on the faces of the children when they first saw the caterpillar babies, barely visible with the human eye, was amazing. At first, in order to see the babies, the children used magnifying glasses to locate them. Within a few days, they were visible without magnification, but tiny nonetheless, especially in comparison to the 50+ larger caterpillars they were used to. As educators and parents, we know that the attention span of young children is often short-lived. What we love watching this summer is how the children are drawn to the caterpillar enclosures over and over again. They check on their charges multiple times a day and know they must be careful and cautious when observing the caterpillars so as not to disturb the growing process. 

The children in our ECC camp this summer take their roles as “keepers of the earth” very seriously. The pride they feel when they pick a vegetable, water a plant or keep watch over a caterpillar is evident on their little faces. Voices heard in the garden saying “me do it!” as children line up to help pick, or watching two children working together to help carry a heavy bucket filled with fresh vegetables for donation, is a sight to behold. 

While we know we will continue to learn and explore in our outdoor spaces during the school year, the magic of summer and camp days spent observing and being in nature seem to pass by all too fast. The vegetables in our garden and the caterpillars slowly transforming are reminders to take time to slow down, to reflect and to appreciate “the bounty” of our time together in community. In this realization we are grateful for the present moment, and the realization there will be time for everything else, until we begin again. Shehecheyanu.

Jen Schiffer has worked in the field of Jewish early childhood education for almost 15 years, teaching in Queens and Long Island, and serving on the board of the Jewish Early Childhood Association. In her role as director at The Community Synagogue L’Dor V’Dor Early Childhood Center in Port Washington, New York, she is passionate about engaging young families in her community by providing meaningful Jewish learning experiences in her early childhood education program.