Lori Ryan, of the SEHD, works with a child at Clayton Early Learning's garden.

Community garden project inspires early childhood educators

September 12, 2019

The summer sun shines down on a bountiful garden in northeast Denver. A group of educators, each with two young children hand in hand, begin their morning walk, carefully observing the changes and growth in the garden beds since their last visit. 

The excitement increases as the children notice the possibilities that await them: yoga mats for stretching, a mud kitchen filled with fresh herbs and dried flowers, cooking utensils for the day’s garden bounty, and clipboards, watercolors, and markers for creative expression. The educators have carefully designed these intentional learning experiences.

Joyful notes from a ukulele call the community of learners to a nearby gazebo, where they set their intentions for the day. Before long, they are off to explore all that the Discovery Garden at Clayton Early Learning has to offer. 

A child and educator bond in Clayton Early Learning's Garden.
An SEHD educator and young child bond over garden bounty.

This is Budding Early Experiences (BEES) in the Garden, a community-engaged teaching and research project launched four years ago with input from alumni and students in CU Denver’s School of Education and Human Development (SEHD).

One morning a week over the summer session, educators from the SEHD, and other early learning settings across the Denver metro area, join forces to connect with children in an informal space. Here, exploration is encouraged and creativity flows. 

“What is so inspiring about this work is the opportunity to learn alongside children and adults, nurturing a growth mindset,” said Nicole Rudman, one of three leaders of the summer 2019 project. “I am dedicated to continuing to find innovative ways to connect and reflect with educators and children.”

Historically, BEES in the Garden has taken place at the GrowHaus, an indoor farm in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood. This year the location changed to the Discovery Garden at Clayton Early Learning, in an area where grocery stores are scarce and the production of healthy food is of great value.

The leaders behind the annual summer project are Lori Ryan, PhD, a clinical assistant professor of early childhood education at the SEHD, and alumni Jenna Augustine, MA, and Nicole Rudman, EdD, who are graduates of the SEHD Buell Early Childhood Leadership Program, a program also in partnership with Clayton Early Learning.

SEHD educator works with children in Clayton Early Learning's garden.
Nicole Rudman, co-leader of the BEES in the Garden project, works alongside children at Clayton Early Learning.

During summer 2019, they were joined by educators from Clayton Early Learning, Denver Cooperative Preschool, and Paddington Station Preschool, along with a group of eager children ages 5 and younger. 

“What is so inspiring about this work is the opportunity to learn alongside children and adults, nurturing a growth mindset.”

Nicole Rudman

The SEHD’s partnership with Clayton Early Learning Center emerged, in part, to support the school’s efforts to produce nutritious food in an area known as a food desert. The Discovery Garden, and the Moon Beam Orchard on the other side of Clayton Early Learning’s campus, serve a dual purpose of providing a hands-on learning lab for the children, as well as a source of wholesome, fresh food for its families.

“Our school’s partnership with Clayton Early Learning makes a difference in the lives of Denver’s children and educators,” Ryan said. “The learning experiences we create together mirror our shared commitment to the rights of all children and educators to inquire and explore, and to have equitable access to healthy and vibrant environments where they can thrive.”  

For the educators, the project fulfills the SEHD’s three goals of teaching, service and research. Each week, they are inspired by six “Big Ideas.” The conceptual framework ties together outdoor experiences and lifelong learning skills, such as “Mindfulness and Movement” and “Senses and the Seasons.” 

In the garden, the educators have the freedom to try and test new processes. To explore. To observe. To play. To slow down. The hope is that they will leave BEES with a deeper understanding of diversity, community, and creativity, to be applied in their own classrooms.  

“Each moment we spend together in the garden feels intentional and peaceful and truly stays with me throughout the week,” Augustine said. “I find that when I am with children, I often see things in a completely different way when I look through their eyes.”

Clinical assistant professor Lori Ryan contributed to this story.