August 27, 2015

New garden seeks to give children early start on health

Skipping along crushed stone pathways flanked by lush green vegetation, students at John B. Whitsitt Elementary School were eager to show a bevy of guests their new classroom: an 11,000-square-foot garden.

John B. Whitsitt Elementary students and special guests cut the ribbon to officially open their new CHAMP's Garden, named Whitsitt Wonderland. (photo by Susan Urmy)

Skipping along crushed stone pathways flanked by lush green vegetation, students at John B. Whitsitt Elementary School were eager to show a bevy of guests their new classroom: an 11,000-square-foot garden.

Whitsitt Wonderland, as the garden has been dubbed, was cultivated from a project known as CHAMP’s Gardens, a nearly decade-long partnership between Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt and Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) to give children a healthy start early in life.

Children’s Hospital officials, MNPS leaders and various community partners joined Whitsitt students Aug. 20 to unveil the new outdoor learning center and garden.

Attendees at the event included Tennessee First Lady Chrissy Haslam, Meg Rush, M.D., chief of staff for Children’s Hospital, Chris Henson, interim director of MNPS, and other community supporters.

CHAMP’s Gardens are designed to help impact childhood obesity by building school environments that support healthy eating and active living for students, their families, school faculty and staff and surrounding community members. The Children’s Hospital and MNPS partnership has created gardens and walking trails as well as developed nutrition education for a total of 11 schools, which includes Whitsitt and another garden debuting in September at Buena Vista Elementary.

“The Whitsitt Wonderland is our 11th and largest garden. It will provide the children with first-hand knowledge of growing fruits and vegetables but also expose them to the interactions in nature,” said Rush.

“They have an outdoor classroom that brings learning to them in a very tangible way — they get to watch the plants grow, learn about nutrition and also have fun. Watching the looks on the children’s faces was very special.”

Most recent data shows Tennessee ranks third in the nation for the highest rates of pediatric obesity, with nearly 37 percent of children being overweight or obese.

“Part of our responsibility as a Children’s Hospital is to engage in preventive health measures. We do a lot of educating about healthy and safe life practices for children. But for over 10 years we have also worked beside community partners to establish food gardens. These initiatives bring together our school partners and various members of our community to build and develop sustainable gardens,” Rush added.

Features of the garden include about 250 plants, fruits and vegetables, a bird sanctuary, sensory garden, weathervane, outdoor classroom with seating and a chalkboard and more. It was designed by Gardens of Babylon in collaboration with Saul Calzadilla, a teacher at Whitsitt.

“With the addition of the Whitsitt Wonderland, our students will have an opportunity to learn about healthy eating and interact with nature in a hands-on learning environment,” said Justin Uppinghouse, principal of Whitsitt Elementary.

“The Whitsitt Wonderland will play an important role in connecting with our families and allowing them to take ownership in a piece of their child’s education.”

Community programming for the garden, which includes Teaching Kitchens for families, will be coordinated by MNPS Community Achieves, a program that strategically aligns resources through partnerships to foster student success.

Funding for Whitsitt Wonderland was provided by a grant from the Ann Potter Wilson Foundation, through the generosity of Justin Wilson and his wife, Barbara Engelhardt, M.D., professor of Pediatrics at Vanderbilt.

“The goal is to help children and their families learn about fresh vegetables, healthy habits and working in a garden. This is really the community’s garden,” said Engelhardt, a neonatologist at Children’s Hospital. “So many children have never eaten a fresh fruit or vegetable. With this garden, the parents, the grandparents, the whole family can be involved.”