An early childhood centre thriving in the tropics

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Annie Dugan has been a chef for over thirty years, with thirteen of those years cooking for children in long daycare. Annie first discovered the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program in 2011 and was inspired to add cooking activities into the childcare centre where she worked. She quickly saw how capable and engaged the children became. Their curiosity and enthusiasm meant Annie quickly knew that the Kitchen Garden Program  and pleasurable food education was a beneficial addition to early learning experiences.

Ten years later, Happy Trails ELC in the Northern Territory was born. Built by Annie and her husband, the centre quickly became known for their caring and passionate educators, strong sense of community engagement and great reputation for healthy, delicious food from their Kitchen Garden Program.

We asked Annie a few questions about how she started out and how she adapts gardening and cooking activities to her balmy, tropical location.

Tell us how you currently run the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program in Happy Trails.

When Happy Trails was in the planning stages, we allocated a natural space to have the Kitchen Garden Program up and running as soon as possible. Once the garden was established and we had a qualified chef on board, we joined the Kitchen Garden Program. Our Program runs on alternate weeks and we rotate the days so each child is included. We share all our activities on Storypark and we get really lovely feedback from our families. 

We have six rooms at Happy Trails from ages 6 months to 5 years and every room participates. The educators are so supportive of the kitchen and garden activities, and we work closely together to make each experience meaningful and embed it in our day-to-day practice.

All our members receive access to our community hub and resource library, called the Shared Table. How do you use the Shared Table to look for recipes and activities for the Northern Territory climate?

I spend so much time on the Shared Table getting ideas and recipes! Up until March, we tend to keep our gardening activities inside, until the wet season passes. We get plenty of ideas from the Shared Table to keep us busy until the weather settles, and then we're back outside potting and planting again!

When our garden grows, this determines what recipes we look for and what activities we'll do. For example, when our tomatoes and basil grow together, I might look for a recipe like simple bruschetta or a savoury pancake recipe containing tomato and basil.

With six rooms and 120 children at our centre, we look for activities that are quick, fun, engaging and age-appropriate to the developmental level of the children. I find the video resources are amazing and really help with guiding the lesson or offering tips and advice.

I find the photographed step by step recipes are such a helpful way of guiding the children through the processes. I even created my own photo recipe for a sunflower seed butter we made around the time we were growing sunflowers.

Happy trails EC

Photo credit: Happy Trails ELC

What is a popular activity in the garden the children are loving right now?

Right now, in our garden, the children are waiting patiently for our two massive bunches of bananas on our banana trees to ripen! Once this happens, we will make a big fuss of our beautiful trees and each room will get to visit the garden and pick a banana.

Also in the garden, our sweet potato experiment has proved very successful with three of the rooms having beautiful roots and shoots growing. These will be planted outside soon, as I believe sweet potatoes grow well in the wet season - let's see!

The Children will continue to water the garden on dry days as this is probably their most favourite thing to do. We have little watering cans that even our 1 year olds can manage pretty well!

What's happening in the kitchen?

During the 6-7 weeks we close for Christmas and summer, our Kitchen Garden Program is paused. Educators will kick-start kitchen and garden activities with bush art and leaf printing and simple kitchen activities like getting the kids to cut their own fruit for afternoon tea or spread butter on their raisin toast at morning tea time. A popular event is teaching children to build a sandwich and see how many vegetables they can get between two slices of wholemeal bread.

You can read more about Happy Trails ELC and how they've embraced the philosophy of the Kitchen Garden Program, in this article on The Sector.

Interested in how your early childhood service can run our Kitchen Garden Program? Join an information session.


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