Eating good food and raising healthy children go hand-in-hand. “The Bread Project” at Garden Gate School has been years in the making – first dreamed about 8 years ago when I became obsessed with the idea of a “community oven” that would bake my “wild-yeasted” bread. With the help of our local perma-culturalist/naturalist/oven-builder, Mike Gerard, we (he) built an Alan Scott wood-fired oven in the back yard. I kept my “levain” (starter) alive and worked at baking great loaves for children in the school and for family. Much traveling and eating has helped me understand what I want out of a loaf. Continual teaching of young children illustrates why understanding slow, local food is parallel to raising strong, healthy children.
In a society intent on growing our children up very fast and stuffing fast food down our throats, the decision to slow things down is a step outside of the mainstream. But, it is a good idea according to child-development expert Alison Gopnik. In her book, “The Gardener and the Carpenter,” Gopnik likens the raising of children to that of cultivating a garden:
“When we garden, on the other hand, we do not believe we are the ones who single-handedly create the cabbages or the roses. Rather, we toil to create the conditions in which plants have the best chance of flourishing. The gardener knows that plans will often be thwarted, Gopnik writes. “The poppy comes up neon orange instead of pale pink … black spot and rust and aphids can never be defeated.” If parents are like gardeners, the aim is to create a protected space in which our children can become themselves, rather than trying to mould them.” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/aug/17/gardener-and-the-carpenter-by-alison-gopnik-review)
By keeping the soil rich, the air clean, the water pure, we are encouraging each child to learn by experience through her senses, to discover how wonderful this world is through his own combinations of ideas and actions. The process is slower. Our children will not form into recognizable people as quickly – they will take longer to find out the effects of gravity, or how to add up groups of objects, or how to read and write. But, we can use this time to enrich their (and our) environments with reflective parenting that cultivates their (and our) moral qualities: empathy, kindness, generosity, thoughtfulness, nurture. The many experiences that are possible if we focus on these practices when our children are little will inevitably allow each child to engage her particular path towards “becoming a person”.
Good, wild-yeasted, bread also relies on rich soil, pure water, air and time. Slow food is about connecting to place and process, acknowledging that the baker does not have total control over the materials. The long-term nature of a wild-yeasted starter and the unique outcomes of the loaves, mimic Gopnik’s words about gardening children. But, making these loaves in a preschool/kindergarten is a lived-experience for the children. The wheat grasses can be found throughout the play yard and vegetable garden as well as small family-farms not too far from here. The wheat berries sit on top of the old-fashioned hand-cranked mill that the children turn. They witness the flour going into the dough while we collect sticks and pile wood for the wood-fired bread oven. The process is arduous and multi-dimensional. Adults at work; children at play. It is a good and productive world that they want to participate in. A medieval wood-fired oven in the play yard exposes adult-work, demystifies what adults do, and embedies goals for young ones. We work together to pile up wood and stack it by the oven. We sit in front of the fire when it is cold outside, telling stories.
In a world where adult-work has disappeared from view (into cyber-space), children have little to observe. And they need it. Slow food in all its forms is a way to unpack our labor so that they can see what “work” is: ground masa from corn growing in our gardens, pickled cucumbers brined in our own jars, strawberry jam from a spring day’s harvest, persimmon pudding from the native persimmons we collected while hiking together as a family. All of these are ways our children can participate in productive and creative work within our families. The “slowness” of it is also an unspoken acknowledgement that we understand the process of “growing up” and it calms the children in these restless times.
In her book, “The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Adults”, Erika Christakis argues that if we turn preschool/kindergarten in to 1st grade and push skills over relationships (to each other, but I would add to the environment), we are endangering society’s future. It’s that serious. She pleads for us to pay attention to the social-emotional lives of our little ones (skills can come later):
“I would argue that many so-called academic skills are very anti-intellectual and very uncognitive. Whereas I think a lot of the social-emotional skills are very much linked to learning.
I think the biggest one is the use of language. When kids are speaking to one another and listening to one another, they’re learning self-regulation, they’re learning vocabulary, they’re learning to think out loud. And these are highly cognitive skills. But we’ve bought into this dichotomy again. I would say “complex skills” versus “superficial” or “one-dimensional skills.”
To give you an example, watching kids build a fort is going to activate more cognitive learning domains than doing a worksheet where you’re sitting at a table. The worksheet has a little pile of pennies on one side and some numbers on the other, and you have to connect them with your pencil. That’s a very uni-dimensional way of teaching skills.
Whereas, if you’re building a fort with your peers, you’re talking, using higher-level language structures in play than you would be if you’re sitting at a table. You’re doing math skills, you’re doing physics measurement, engineering — but also doing the give-and-take of, “How do I get along? How do I have a conversation? What am I learning from this other person?” And that’s very powerful.” (Interview on NPR, https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/02/09/465557430/what-kids-need-from-grown-ups-but-arent-getting)
Slow food and early childhood value process over product. When we build the world around our young children we can, for a little while, infuse it with the nutrition of productive experiences, cooperative work, and creative problem-solving. These can become the building blocks for a lifetime of relationships, meaningful work, happiness, and yes, a better society.