Food-focused learning activities for curious kids

Our children are sponges of information and long to learn. What we teach them will hopefully last a lifetime and help them throughout life and even with their own families.

Years ago, relatives were closely involved in agriculture so the question of where our food comes from was obvious to all age groups. That has changed over time. I didn’t grow up on a farm; I have to go back to my great grandparents to have a direct relationship to agriculture in my family.

Having some knowledge of the farm, the challenges in producing our food and where our food comes from is important. Why? Because we can’t live without food.

  1. Food keeps us healthy.
  2. Food keeps us secure.
  3. Food provides nutrients that help our children learn and develop.

Agriculture has changed over time. The tractors have changed, the seeds have changed and even the farmer has changed. Our food in the U.S. is produced by less than 2% of the population. You no longer have to work in agriculture to feed your family. Science is an integral part of our food production and technology is a part of our world. We no longer have to take a horse into town, we use our cars. We no longer use that same horse to plow the fields, we use a GPS driven tractor, similar to technology on your phone or in your car.

Kids are fascinated by the world around them. As our children ask questions, we learn. In adults, this behavior stops at some point and yet it should continue. Asking questions allows us to have a deeper understanding of a career, of a person, of a culture, etc.

As a scientist and an agricultural educator, I’m passionate about talking about the agriculture industry. I enjoy taking an unexpected arthropod into the classroom (like the one I'm holding in the photo) and asking students to tell me what they know about it. Is it an animal? Is it a spider? Is it an insect? Why or why not? vinegaroonRH

The discovery of putting together information they know with an organism that they don’t is fascinating and teaches them that even if they don’t have all the information, they can start to put pieces of the puzzle together. If they still don’t know what it is, we can do some research together or they can ask the expert (me!) for some more information.

Fast forward to adulthood, why don’t we use these same principles? In my case, I get lazy sometimes. It does take some effort to look information up, and it’s much easier to draw a somewhat incomplete conclusion based on what I do know and ignore the information that I don’t know or have to look up. As adults, we forget how gratifying and exciting that search for information can be.

If you are looking for ways to encourage your children to learn more about food and the farm, I would suggest using the holidays as a great way to explore that. Many times families are already on the farm, picking out the perfect pumpkin, apples for a pie or that perfect holiday tree. Even if you aren’t already on the farm, the food around you has an interesting story to tell. Use this opportunity to talk to people about what goes into growing those for us.

Some great questions to ask are:

  • How long does it take these food items to grow?
  • What requirements are needed to produce these food items?
  • Why did they decide to pursue this as a career?
  • What technologies do they use?
  • Why do they use those technologies?

The next time you visit a petting zoo, ask what products each of the animals make. Make a trip to the farmers market or grocery store educational by creating a scavenger hunt for products and questions to ask the farmer about those products. I’ve started one for you, but feel free to change it based on your local market (please share your modifications with me and others through comments on our Facebook page). You could also look for these items at the grocery and do some research together with your children to answer even more questions about the foods you buy.

There are also some fun experiments you can do with your children to extract DNA from food. Strawberries work best for this activity, but other fruits and vegetables would also work. Check out the directions here.

Have fun together asking questions and learning more about food and agriculture. If you come across new ideas please share them so we can all continue to learn and grow (pun intended)!

2015headshot Ronda Hamm is passionate about sharing science with everyone. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in agriculture education at Fresno State University. She taught at Clovis East and Sierra High Schools before starting her graduate education. She received her Master of Science and doctorate degrees in entomology at Cornell University. She is currently a patent liaison at Dow AgroSciences.