Learning to Try Things with the Littlest Students

I’ll admit that when I began my FoodCorps service, I was less than confident about the idea of working with very young children. I was most excited to get to interact with older kids, students who would be able to grasp more complex ideas and concepts, who would be able to participate in more difficult or intricate activities. And I still am so excited and happy to get to work with the older grade school ages, whether we’re trying something exciting for our Pick A Better Snack lessons, cooking something new, or learning about plants in the garden. But I’ve learned a lot in preschool this year.

I go once a  month to the Ottumwa Community Preschool to give Pick A Better Snack lessons in each classroom. Our lessons are generally shorter and simpler than the ones I give to the older kids – no more than 20 minutes long.

PABS Pears
October’s Pick A Better Snack of the month: Pears. Sliced and ready to be served!

What does a lesson look like?

First, we talk about what we’re trying today,
we talk about how trying new foods is good, we talk about how fruits and vegetables are good for us and help us grow up strong and healthy. We review the rules about trying new things: taste at least one bite, be polite, and wait until all our friends are ready to try together.

Next, we experience the fruit or vegetable we’re trying with our five senses. What color is it on the outside? What color is it on the inside? What letter does it start with? What does it smell like? How does it feel when you touch it? And finally, how does it taste?

Then we read a book that is short and age appropriate for them so they can stay engaged – sometimes the book will have something to do with the food we tasted, sometimes it will have to do with trying new things, and sometimes I am lucky enough to find a book that perfectly illustrates a potentially complex science concept to three and four year olds – This month, for example, I read A Fruit is a Suitcase for Seeds, by Jean Richards. It was perfect because we tasted Kiwi, which has tiny edible seeds. The book helped us learn that lots of fruits and vegetables have seeds, and about why they do.

After the book has been read and “I Tried it!” stickers have been distributed, we get up and move our bodies. My favorite thing to do with the preschoolers is a Story in Motion. You can do it with older children as well, but preschoolers seem to take the most joy in this particular activity. I tell them that we are going to use our imaginations and pretend that we are going somewhere or doing something. Then I tell a story with actions that they follow along and do. Sometimes the story has something to do with the food we tried – when we tasted pears we went to the Pear Orchard. Sometimes I draw inspiration from the book we read – when we read How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food, by Jane Yolen, we all pretended to be different kinds of dinosaurs that the students suggested. In my experience, most preschoolers know 4 dinosaurs: T-Rex (“T-Rex has big legs and tiny arms, walk around and lift your knees high!”), Pterodactyl (“Flap your wings and jump in the air!”), Triceratops (“Stretch your arms out like you’re making a big hood around your head”), and Brontosaurus (“Stand on your toes and stretch your arms high towards the treetops!”). I always added Velociraptor – (“Velociraptors run very fast: run in place!”).

With the preschoolers I tend not to delve too much into the specific nutrients in the fruits and vegetables we try, I don’t talk in much detail about the plant’s growth habit or the place in the world it most commonly comes from, I don’t converse with them about how their family prepares the vegetable we just tasted, and I usually only give them the fruit or vegetable raw instead of also preparing it a different way. I always do these things with older students, but simplifying the lesson for preschool doesn’t make it boring. In fact, these are some of the most fun lessons I get to teach.

Preschool has it’s own unique challenges – kids’ communication skills are still developing, they are often still learning how to behave in a classroom, and attention spans are much shorter in a room full of four year olds. But preschool also has it’s own unique rewards. These four year olds are wholeheartedly excited when I walk into their classroom. I get more unsolicited suprise hugs than from any other age group. I get to experience their wonder and curiosity when we explore a new food with our five senses. They are full of joy and excitement when we get to do our stories in motion, always asking to do it again. No age group is more excited to receive a sticker. And preschoolers are always the most willing to try new foods (even though they are occasionally also the most nervous).

I’ve started to really look forward to my days working with the preschool. I love the opportunity to experience the joy, excitement, and curiosity that they exude when I come to their classroom with something new to try. I didn’t ever picture myself working with students so young, but I’ve grown to love it. And I now really believe that this is such an important time in their lives to reach these kids, to introduce them to the simple act of trying new fruits and vegetables. Preschoolers try new things all the time, they are naturally curious, and they are happy to take joy in new things with you. Trying healthy food ought to be a big part of this time in their lives so that it can be a normal part of the rest of their lives. So they can have that much more of a chance to grow up healthy.