By Kristin Schuchman

When sending their kids to preschool, most parents are content to find a place that keeps kids safe and reasonably engaged — not letting their kids just blob out in front of the TV — ensures a certain amount of physical play, provides healthy snacks and teaches kids to share and clean up their toys. But what if your preschool could give your kids extensive firsthand experience playing in the garden, teaching your kids how to care for farm animals like ducks and goats; dig for worms; make mud puddles; construct bird feeders; plant and tend plants years-round and cook and bake with the food they grow?

The Garden’s Noise Preschool in Southeast Portland does just that. Set in a house in a quiet neighborhood near Mt. Tabor, Garden’s Noise provides a backyard as hands on learning lab for young hands and minds to explore every aspect of joyful gardening, from sticking seeds into the earth and coaxing tiny green tendrils into healthy plants to harvesting the eventual yield of food and flowers.

Started by Michele Miller, a former garlic farmer with a Masters Degree in Education from Stanford University, Garden’s Noise offers truly unique learning opportunities for her young students. Instead of merely babysitting kids, Miller actively encourages kids to, as her brochure states, actively “nourish their natural creativity.”

With an ancient apple tree that looks like it belongs in a children’s storybook as the centerpiece, Miller’s backyard would set off the imagination of even the most cynical mind. Flowers and vegetables are planted in meandering rows; ducks, chickens and goats provide quiet farmyard chatter, and chairs and benches are situated in sun-dappled spots throughout the yard.

Large ceramic containers inspire whimsy with “fairy gardens,” featuring seashells, small pieces of driftwood, tiny trinkets like inch-high bridges, lanterns and benches, and cultivated moss. The young minds are kept further engaged with songs, art projects and seasonal activities like drying apples, winnowing wheat and baking pies in fall, caring for and feeding birds and squirrels in winter, planting new seeds and celebrating May Day in the spring.

Since Oregon enjoys a mild maritime climate the children can grow things throughout the year. Last month, local nonprofit Growing Gardens picked up starts that the children had grown from seeds to deliver to low-income families attempting to grow their own gardens. The grew cucumbers, zucchini, and two kind of winter squash,” says Miller. “We have them plant things that are easy to grow with seeds big enough for kids to grasp easily.”

Overall, the preschoolers sow and nurture more than 1000 starts for Growing Gardens’ Home Gardens Program. The spirit of giving doesn’t end with raising starts for Growing Gardens. Garden’s Noise students also make and deliver bread to neighbors in need or take home loaves to grandparents who are ill or feeling lonely.

“I try to instill in the children a sense of giving,” says Miller. “And make it possible to live more fully in the world and make it a better place.”

In operation since 1997 and relying almost exclusively on word of mouth, Garden’s Noise is in high demand with a lengthy wait list. Grounded somewhat in the Waldorf educational philosophy, Garden’s Noise encourages learning through play and experimentation.

“Sometimes when they don’t know we’re looking, you’ll see the children acting out plays in the backyard,” says Miller, pointing to the shadiest corner of the yard. “They act out stories we tell them that teach morals nature’s rhythms.”

One of these tales, based on a Native American folk tale called The Evergreen, is a fable about why some trees keep their leaves and why others lose their leaves. According to the story all trees long ago kept their leaves year round. One day a bird ran into a branch and fell to the forest floor. After appealing to several types of trees for shelter and being rejected by the  maple, the oak and the birch, all of whom refused their leaves as shelter the bird found solace under the needles of a pine. From then on the deciduous trees were forever cursed to lose their leaves in the winter so they might know firsthand how the little bird felt, while the pine continues to keep it needles all year long.

According to the National Gardening Association, children who garden frequently enjoy increased self-esteem, higher science achievement scores, improved social skills, a deeper connection with the environment and greater interest in eating nutritious foods.

Renee Schuman says of her daughter Halle since starting at Garden’s Noise, “She shows a lot more interest in planting seeds at home and talking about the garden.”

If you’re interested in seeing your school offer more hands-on gardening with your children, check out the Youth Grow Program through Growing Gardens at www.growing-gardens.org. Also, the website www.kidsgarden.org offers valuable tips and articles for encouraging school and at-home gardening projects to share with kids.