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Pumpkin Day serves fun and learning for four east Kentucky counties
Sitting on hay bales with small spoons of sorghum in hand, a group of kindergarteners all shouted "We are brave!" and then they stuck the spoons in their mouths. A variety of facial expressions followed. Jackson City School kindergarten teacher Amy Hollan said that's the way she's taught her students to approach anything new - all together and all brave.
"We have a philosophy (about trying new things); we all hold out our hands and hold something we've never tried before, then we all try it together," Hollan said. "This is the first chance we've had to do this outside the classroom."
Sorghum tasting was just one part of the third annual Pumpkin Day at the University of Kentucky Robinson Center for Appalachian Sustainability in Breathitt County. Nearly 800 children from preschool through kindergarten, along with their teachers, a few parents and dozens of younger siblings got a chance to taste many new things including pumpkin bread, pumpkin butter and pumpkin dip.
"We talk about these things (pumpkins, sorghum, etc.) in the classroom," Hollan said, "but for them to come to a field where there are tons of pumpkins and be able to run and grab one, it's just an experience you wouldn't believe."
Children attending Pumpkin Day came from Breathitt, Lee, Owsley and Wolfe counties.
After all the tasting, art stations, educational activities and games, the children walked down a dirt path to the pumpkin patch. One by one, they walked into the patch and came out with their very own "perfect" pumpkin.
"Nobody really does anything for this age group because large groups of preschoolers can be hard to manage," said Martha Yount, UK Cooperative Extension agent for family and consumer sciences in Breathitt County . "However, this age group is one of our targets for nutrition education - families with young children. We can do two things at Pumpkin Day - educate the children, and it also gives us an opportunity to teach the parents about healthy food, physical activity and just having a healthy, active lifestyle."
Terry Jones, extension horticulture specialist for the Robinson Center, and his assistants plant about an acre of cannonball pumpkins, which Jones said are just the right size for small children because they grow to between three and five pounds and have a naturally long, sturdy handle. The variety is also pretty easy to manage because of its resistance to powdery mildew, and an acre can easily produce up to 6,000 pumpkins.
"In my job, I primarily work with adults and so in the beginning, I was a little afraid of leading a program for young children," Jones said. "After the first year, I was hooked on it, and now it's one of those things I really look forward to each year."
Pumpkin Day is part of a larger effort of Cooperative Extension agents reaching out to their local school systems. Because of that, the Brushy Fork Institute presented organizers with a nearly $5,000 grant. Brushy Fork Institute partners with the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Kentucky Department for Local Government to provide training for community leaders and administer $280,000 in Flex-E-Grants for Kentucky's distressed Appalachian counties.
Cooperative Extension agents work with the school systems in each county and send educational materials prior to Pumpkin Day and also after the event is over. This way, teachers can measure what their children already know and what they learn from the educational effort. Extension agents and nutrition assistants also visit the classrooms and provide additional instruction and activities for the students.
Hollan said the entire experience is beneficial to her students, and it fits right in with the way she teaches.
"There's nothing these kids won't try once," she said.
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