Raising Plants, Preschoolers : * Youngsters help beautify a play yard as part of a teacher's effort to make their first school experience positive.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES: Susan Heeger writes regularly about gardening for The Times

It's planting day for the preschoolers at Hart Street School in Canoga Park. As the sun ducks behind a cloud, they jostle each other around an outdoor table, waiting for paper cups, seeds and a chance to dip into the potting soil and start farming.

Anita Angulo, a dark-eyed, serious 4-year-old, chooses cosmos. Antonio Zamora, also 4, rattles a carrot packet and announces that he will feed his harvest to the resident rabbit in his class.

"Poke a hole in the dirt," advises their teacher, Amy Weisberg, trying to keep them on track. "One hole, Fernando!" she tells an overanxious boy. "Now pour the seeds in and cover them up."

As the watering can makes its rounds, she explains that when the seedlings sprout, they'll be moved to six flower-filled barrels that form the centerpiece of the children's garden program--and their once-barren asphalt play yard.

The garden effort is one of Weisberg's pet projects for improving her students' first experience with school.

Part of Los Angeles Unified's School Readiness Language Development Program, her class prepares economically disadvantaged children for kindergarten.

It was dismay over their playground's starkness that first led Weisberg to start thinking about greenery.

"I got so tired of seeing private schools look so great," she says. "I thought, 'Why can't our kids have something nice?' "

Since her school had scant funds for any frills, she approached Sperling Nursery in Calabasas, which agreed to donate seeds and plants, and sell barrel planters at cost.

Carson-based Kellogg Supply Co. provided free planting mix. Once the winter rains stopped, Weisberg and her students filled the barrels with flowers to dress the yard up till they had seedlings to transplant.

"They're so excited. They love this," says Weisberg, who finds that growing plants provide ample opportunities for hands-on learning and discussions, and make students more sensitive to the natural world.

"Studies show that children who take care of living things are more aware of their environment and more concerned about it," she says.

Since many of her students live in apartments, they often lack garden plots at home and thus miss out on the experience.

But by teaching them container gardening, she also hopes to show that even a small apartment balcony has room enough for greenery.

Whether they take their lessons home, their school life is already enhanced by the pots of cosmos, marigolds and petunias running up and down their yard.

"It's more fun to play here now," Anita says while two of her friends study flower buds, speculating on when they'll open.

Weisberg's efforts have also inspired other beautification projects at the elementary school.

Six additional barrels adorn the kindergarten yard. Flowers surround some trees by the parking lot. And soon, when someone donates enough soil, 15 large planters provided by Rubbermaid will stand outside the classrooms of grades one through five.

Students' pride in their efforts, Weisberg hopes, will reduce the incidence of campus vandalism, a problem at Hart Street.

"If their school looks good," she says, "both the kids and the community will take care of it and feel protective. If it looks bad, who cares?"

Principal Jacqueline Harris agrees, adding, "If a child takes pride in the campus, that affects how he views school in general, and how he views school affects what he achieves here."

Looking toward the future, Weisberg plans to use the class barrels for seasonal plantings: pumpkins in the fall, winter vegetables and Iceland poppies during the chilly months.

"With the barrels, we have the flexibility to change," she says. "We can also teach children about the life cycle--how plants take root and grow and die, and then something else replaces them."

Even more important, though, she believes, is how learning to garden raises her students' self-esteem.

"To do a project from start to finish, to have it look good and be successful--that's the goal," she says. "That's really what we're doing here."

WHERE TO GO

What: To donate tools, soil, seeds, plants or other garden materials to Hart Street School, contact Principal Jacqueline Harris.

Call: (818) 340-6222.

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