It’s been raining all day, but inside the learning center upstairs at Chalet in Wilmette, a paper plate sunshine smiles down on a group of wiggly children. Gathered in a circle around Jean Foley, who leads the Chalet Sprouts program one Saturday each month, the kids can’t wait to touch and smell the herb and vegetable plants arranged before them.
“Touch this one,” she says, inviting small hands to stroke the leaves of a yellow- blossomed squash seedling. “See how fuzzy they are?”
“Oh yes!” one little girl exclaims. “They feel just like Pop Pop’s whiskers!”
“And who remembers what this herb is called?” Foley continues, holding up a fragrant rosemary plant.
Questions about each of the herbs are quickly answered by the group, who’ve retained a surprising amount of the information Foley has gently guided them through since the classes started in March.
Each with a different nature theme, hands-on activities, story time, and craft to make and bring home, Sprouts classes have each filled to near capacity. The success of the pilot season has prompted Chalet to consider expanding the program to include middle school classes as well.
“We always wanted to add more children’s programming to our offerings at the learning center,” says Carleigh Thalmann, marketing specialist for the company her ancestors founded a century ago. “Most of the classes we’ve done for the last 50 years have been designed for adults. But we had had requests for fun, kid-shaped offerings with a horticultural focus, and when Jean joined our staff, we thought now was the time to kick this off.”
Foley, who has a degree in horticulture production and landscape design, also came
to Chalet with 10 years of experience as a pre- school director and middle school youth director. The opportunity to teach children about plants, nature, and the environment is the perfect mar- riage of her skills.
“I love doing this,” says Foley. “The excitement the children have about learning and sharing what they already know about the wonder of nature is infectious. And the pride they have at making something with their own hands is also wonderful to see.”
Because each child learns differently, Foley has been careful to include interactive object lessons in her teaching, plus story times that include brightly illustrated children’s books, hands-on crafts that apply what the children learn, and a walk through Chalet’s gardens so the children can experience the colors and sensory thrill of nature outdoors.
Each child receives a “welcome” gift bag, with a mini watering can, gardening gloves, and wind-up butterfly. Children can sign up to attend as many sessions as they like (each is $10) but kids who attend the full roster through December will get special recognition at the end of the year.
This month’s session, “Digging with Dad,” has a gardening focus. The story, based on Lois Ehlert’s “Growing Vegetable Soup” book, teaches about vegetables and how they grow.
After the story is finished, Foley teaches the children about the Native American ingenuity of growing a tall corn or a sunflower plant, with climbing beans around it, and squash plants at the base to discourage weed growth. Each child clamors for the chance to take turns being the sunflower, while others wrap green paper streamers (representing bean tendrils) around the flower stalk, and still others plant paper squash plants at the base.
Later, the kids fill mini compostable planters with soil, plant seeds in them, and then scamper out for a walk in the edible section of Chalet’s gardens (where vegetables and herbs are sold).
“They really enjoy the classes,” says Foley, talking about previous sessions such as the Mother’s Day “Bloom Boom!” and upcoming offerings including bee-focused “The Buzz on Pollinators,” and “Summer Sun”—which will focus on how plants use the sun’s light to produce oxygen and food, and give kids the chance to make their own sun catchers.
“There is so much potential with this. My hope is the children not only have a lot of fun each session, but that they gain greater respect for the plants, animals, and the earth, along with an understanding of its limited resources and an appreciation for what they can do to care for it,” Foley concludes.
For more information on Chalet Sprouts sessions, which happen from 1 to 2 p.m., one Saturday each month through December at Chalet’s flagship Wilmette location, please visit chaletnursery.com/sprouts.