Small Hands at Work

Instructor Emily Earhart leads children through The Huntington’s historic Valencia orange groves to pick fruit. Photo by Deborah Miller.

Instructor Emily Earhart leads children through The Huntington’s historic Valencia orange groves to pick fruit. Photo by Deborah Miller.

Huntington Explorers summer camp recently finished its 14th year at The Huntington. Each day for three weeks, children aged 5-12 explored The Huntington’s library, art, and botanical collections in classes about everything from the art of storytelling to the world of science. We share the experience of one instructor, Emily Earhart, a food anthropologist and professional chef, who taught “Edible Gardens” and “Fun with Food.” Registration for next year’s Explorers program will begin in April 2016.

For a few weeks this summer, children put aside electronic tablets and game consoles to learn about edible plants growing at The Huntington. Many of the youngsters were very sophisticated in their understanding of food.

“Even the younger kids were very knowledgeable,” said Earhart. “They knew about seasonal foods, local foods, and how foods could be prepared.” And Earhart gave kudos to parents for including vegetables in their kids’ diets. “Many kids told me they loved vegetables—especially spinach and broccoli,” she said.

Children took their task seriously—searching out big, round, firm oranges to make their juice. Photo by Deborah Miller.

Children took their task seriously—searching out big, round, firm oranges to make their juice. Photo by Deborah Miller.

While the children knew quite a lot about food, Earhart found they needed a bit of guidance on some of the practical skills they needed to complete the crafts she planned.

For instance, one project had children creating bracelet-like music makers by threading pumpkin seeds, kukui nuts, and acorns along a strand of hemp or ribbon. Some children were having trouble with the overhand knot and lark’s head knot until Earhart gave them one-on-one demonstrations. Even then, some of the children found it difficult to adjust the knots to the right tightness—although many of the older girls found doing so easy. “My hunch is that they had prior experience from making friendship bracelets,” said Earhart.

In another project, older children sewed sachets and filled them with relaxing herbs from the herb garden. Many of the girls had tried sewing before, but few of the boys had. All of the children were up for the challenge and got the hang of the running stitch. Still, many found it hard to keep the stitches small and close together.

Earhart took children on field trips around the property so that they could see edible plants up close, making stops at the Herb Garden, Conservatory, Rose Garden, and the historic orange groves. Despite the heat, which often hovered around 90 degrees, children loved the adventure of leaving their air-conditioned classrooms to go out and explore.

Emily Earhart helps a student juice a just-picked orange. Photo by Martha Benedict.

Emily Earhart helps a student juice a just-picked orange. Photo by Martha Benedict.

The visit to the orange groves was the hands-down favorite. Henry Huntington used the historic grove of Valencia oranges for commercial production. Today, the harvested oranges are donated to local food banks through an organization called Food Forward.

Each Explorer got to pick two oranges. Earhart was impressed by how thoughtful the children were about picking fruit. “Is this a good one to pick? Is this one ready? Is this one too old?” they asked.

“I had the sense that few had picked fruit before,” she said.

Earhart was surprised when they returned to the classroom to juice the oranges. “I thought juicing would be a mundane activity that they had done many times before. In fact, for many it was the first time,” said Earhart.

Children were surprised to discover how many oranges it took to make enough juice for all of them to have a taste. Photo by Martha Benedict.

Children were surprised to discover how many oranges it took to make enough juice for all of them to have a taste. Photo by Martha Benedict.

Lily Kate, Victor, and Grace in the 5–6 year-old class screeched with laughter as their hands vibrated on the electric juicer. “It tickles my hands,” exclaimed one. Happily, the results were delicious. “This is the best O.J. I’ve ever tasted,” declared a child from the 7–8 year-old class. “It’s so sweet!”

By the end of the two classes, children had made lip balm infused with herbs, dyed a bandana with natural dyes, prepared a salad with just-picked ingredients, preserved watermelon rind, and planted seeds for a take-home mini-garden.

They also got a taste of old-fashioned summer—keeping their small hands busy not on a keyboard or screen, but by growing, picking, smelling, and tasting Nature’s bounty.

Diana W. Thompson is senior writer for the office of communications and marketing at The Huntington.

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