UNIVERSITY CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Outside the University City Children's Center, 4- and 5-year-olds step carefully around a raised garden bed, their little hands covered in dirt.
The center's executive director, Stephen Zwolak, approaches. "What are you doing?" he asks, smiling. And one boy squeals: "Planting! Peas!"
The garden bed about 110 feet long and a few feet high has become the latest "classroom" at the center, a place where children as young as 1 and 2 spend part of their day learning how to grow their own food.
"This year it became part of the curriculum," Zwolak explained. "They eat what they grow."
Vegetable gardens have been sprouting at schools across the St. Louis area, primarily because educators are trying to bring healthful fresh food to developing bodies and brains. Many of these gardens are being installed at elementary schools, but more area kids are getting their hands dirty even earlier in preschool or day care as educators try to make an early impact on budding tastes and habits.
"Kids palettes develop really early," said Gwenne Hayes-Stewart, director of Gateway Greening, the community organization that helps build and run gardens around the city. "So if you can get them eating fresh veggies early, and knowing where their food comes from, it's much more likely they'll become lifelong habits."
Gateway Greening has launched five gardens at day care establishments this year and expects to install more next year.
At one of them, the Little Feet Home Child Care, in the Shaw neighborhood, children as young as 2 and 3 have helped grow green beans, watermelons and tomatoes in three raised beds.
"They learn about healthy eating," explained Sharon Foote-Robinson, who runs Little Feet. "They see that little seed go in the ground, and they see it come up and flourish. It's an education."
At Shining Rivers School in Webster Groves, each grade level has its own garden, including the preschoolers, ages 3 and 4. The school's Waldorf method of instruction forges a strong connection with the outdoors, with kids outside rain or shine.
"They participate in the gardening as part of their daily routine," explained Ann Weidemann, the school's business manager. "Their toys are practical shovels, buckets, wheelbarrows. In the early childhood years, they develop an appreciation of practical work."
But gardens help teach in a more traditional sense, too. At the University City Children's Center, children learn about the science of plants, and they learn how to weigh their vegetables on a scale or count seeds, boosting math skills in the process. In some classes, children write about their daily gardening experiences in a journal.
"There's the science piece, the values piece, the language piece," Zwolak explained. "There's the psycho-dynamic piece. How do we care about and nurture something?"
The children plant, water and weed as the growing season progresses. Then, when the vegetables are ready, they harvest, weigh and, in some cases, help cut and cook them.
Zwolak explained that the school cleared its kitchen of all canned goods and preservative-heavy ingredients in January, and plans to conduct a "food audit" in the fall to see where it can improve its food offerings. The school is building a greenhouse this fall to extend the growing season, and, eventually hopes to renovate a dining room for students and install a demonstration kitchen so children can learn to cook.
"Some of our kids are eating two of their meals here a day," said Kris Schwetye, who helps oversee the garden project. "We want to make sure they're good."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)