Kids Learn How to Grow on Manitoulin Island with Kids Can Grow Project

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Author: Josie Di Felice

Posted: October 28, 2014

Categories: Edible Education Network / Edible Education Project Profiles

Kids Can GrowKids Can Grow, a registered Trademark of Farmers’ Markets Ontario, is a program that encourages kids to not only grow and learn about plants in their classrooms, but also to bring those plants to sell at local farmers’ markets (this year, one school even held their own market).

Based out of Manitoulin Island, the Kids Can Grow program originally took root in 2006 through discussion with other board members of the Gore Bay Farmers’ Market; 2014 now sees 8 schools involved, and they are branching out to develop gardens as well.

Chuc and Linda Willson began the Kids Can Grow program in 2006 with financial support from FedNor. The Willsons have been very active in farmers’ markets, local food and support for small farms for many years. They also operate ‘Our Garden’, a market garden business in Ice Lake on Manitoulin Island.

The Kids Can Grow program grew out of the belief that it’s incredibly important for kids in school to learn basic growing skills as children and youth lose contact with the way our food/plants are grown. The Willsons thought farmers’ market could be the key link between farmers/gardeners and kids/schools on Manitoulin Island – and thus came Kids Can Grow.

The program teaches young people how to foster good growing habits by linking them with knowledgeable farmers and gardeners in the area (like Mr. Willson)! These experts go into the classrooms and teach the students on subjects such as the cycle of life – the story of a plant’s life from seed to flower (or fruit). The kids take away all sorts of lessons along the way.

Ms. Willson shared in this article, “the kids love learning about growing; they are entertained and become so attentive when we’re teaching them about good growing habits through story.”

And it doesn’t just end with the story. Students actually get to dig their hands into the soil and grow plants themselves. They also have the option to transplant what they’ve grown to their garden at home, or to a community garden, some of which have emerged since the Kids Can Grow program started. This is a great way to expand on learning outside of the classroom, since the community gardens allow them to keep growing throughout the summer.

They hope to continue expanding the program by matching more schools to their local farmers’ market, and eventually even have the program in the school curriculum.

Along the way they are continually adding new, fun ideas to the program as well. For instance, Bella the Clown has joined Kids Can Grow. The clown amuses kids with her mime and antics as she teaches the life cycle of a plant and demonstrates how to plant seeds. They also have a storytelling component where farmer Vince comes and tells the story of ‘Willy the Worm’, and Chuc does teachings of the cycle of life from the Medicine Wheel.

They’ve also added a cooking component, realizing that as the kids learn to grow their own food, they delight in eating it too! Linda teaches about the ‘Three Sisters’ while cooking soup, which contains all naturally-grown corn, beans and squash.

In partnership with the Manitoulin Child Poverty Task Force, the program also started five school gardens, two community gardens, and five individual gardens right in kids’ backyards.

And the list still goes on! This year a youth group, in collaboration with the local nursing home, grew plants for the nursing home gardens. Linda tells us what a treat it was to just watch the elders and children gardening together – an invaluable experience for both the residents and kids being able to see the rewards of growing their own food and visiting the beautiful flower and vegetable gardens.

Like many of the inspiring programs and initiatives that we’ve been profiling, Kids Can Grow undoubtedly has numerous beneficial outcomes for the various people involved: students, teachers, farmers, market vendors, parents, and really the community in general.

Linda notes that classroom teachers, youth group leaders and garden mentors are the biggest asset to the program. They put in hours of work and mentorship in teaching kids about growing. Fundraising is of course also a big job, as the program is very much volunteer- driven, so donations and help are always appreciated.

We spoke with Linda Willson further to gain more insight in how this admirable project began. Check out our Q&A with Linda below!

Q&A with the Kids Can Grow Project

How is your program funded?

Some government funding, FedNor (Federal funding), NOHFC (provincial internship funding), LAMBAC (LaCloche Manitoulin Business Assistance Corporation) – we got a Local Initiatives Project grant from them – The SDHU (Sudbury and District Health Unit), The Manitoulin Food Network, some personal donations, corporate assistance with discounts and shipping, and the schools provide transportation and 20% of their sales from the farmers’  markets go back to the program.

How did you first engage the schools / communities? 

The Gore Bay Farmers Market initially developed the program and it was run by volunteers – we started a pilot program the first year at two schools, got awesome support from the teachers and they are the ones that make it happen now – we had eight schools planting and five community gardens this year in 2014.

What did you use to make your case for support?

We developed a curriculum with the help of farmers and a retired teacher, made a video and we show that to our supporters who are always generous with their support. We had captive and eager participants with the teachers in the schools so it did not take a lot of convincing.

What tips do you have for others doing this kind of initiative?

Get gardeners/farmers involved and find a devoted teacher in each school. Be organized – don’t start planting till after Easter break, but seeds have to be ordered early in January or February. We’ve found the best seed place is William Dam seeds in Dundas ON – good organically grown seed and nice people to deal with – always give a discount.

What was one of the biggest challenges you’ve come up against and how did you address it?

Getting teachers in some schools to commit to the program, and teaching the skills to the teachers. Once the teachers are on board and trained, they are the best advocates. Some good volunteer gardeners to help with the training is also a must.

What factors were critical for your success?

Being organized, getting all the materials ordered before March, getting all the schools scheduled in and having a good curriculum. I will be working with a First Nations PhD student to develop a formal curriculum to be presented in Ontario schools so keep in touch.

Do you have any stories about the impacts your program is having?

We started a collaboration with a nursing home and a youth group this year and they grew plants and planted the gardens at the nursing home – it turned out to be a great program. It was really fun to see the elderly residents having so much fun with the kids and vice versa and also to see how attentive both groups were to the plants.

My favourite story is how the kids stop me on the street to tell me about their beautiful flowers and their delicious food from their gardens. Their time at the market in Gore Bay is a special attraction for our adult vendors and visitors alike and the kids love it too.


Chuc and Linda Willson
Kids Can Grow Founders



This profile is part of a series of profiles for the Ontario Edible Education Network.
Be sure to check out more profiles from the Network here!