If one were to visit the 160-acre Tollgate Farm in a typical spring, they would find rolling farmland, grazing animals, and young children working alongside retired volunteers in the sugar bush.
The MSU-owned land, which is located about an hour away from East Lansing, was donated to Michigan State University in 1987. From 2016 through the spring of 2020, Tollgate’s Farm Sprouts program served as an outdoor learning enrichment experience for children ages three through five. The children learned to plant and tap trees, harvest produce, and care for animals.
The program began with educator and MSU alumna Brooke Larm and her colleagues.
Larm grew up in Grayling, Michigan, a town in the northern Lower Peninsula with a population of just under 2,000. She grew up on the AuSable River and spent a great amount of time outdoors from a young age.
“My grandparents actually lived across the river from us, so I’d visit them by wading the river,” she said.
At MSU, Larm studied to be a teacher with a concentration in environmental science. She fell in love with it while taking classes on forestry and the Great Lakes. While working an internship in a second-grade classroom, Larm met Barbara Kallman, who became a mentor to her.
“She was incredible in weaving the outdoors through everything that she did,” Larm said.
Through her childhood, her courses at MSU, and her experience with Kallman, Larm’s passion for education began to narrow as she became interested in the specific idea of involving nature in the classroom. (1:44)
Larm graduated in 2003, entering the workforce during a recession. Her husband’s work in the automotive industry took them to Mexico, and Larm, who knew finding a teaching job wasn’t likely, decided to go for it.
“While I was there, I taught English in a Catholic school, I taught English in an inner city public school,” Larm said.
Larm added a Spanish concentration to her teaching degree because of this experience, something that would prove to be useful at Tollgate years later.
“In the preschool program that I've been teaching the past years at Tollgate, I was actually working with a lot of children who were speaking many languages,” Larm said. "So I was able to bring those languages into the classroom."
She also wrote a case study during this time, focused on the power of learning a language outdoors observed in a young Korean student.
After Mexico, Larm taught English in Germany. After taking two years off work following the birth of her son, Larm moved back to Michigan and was ready to go back to teaching.
“I knew I wanted to go back to teaching, I didn't want to go into the four walls of a classroom,” Larm said. “I knew I needed to be somehow connected to the outdoors.”
This desire brought her to Tollgate. Larm began working field trip programs at Tollgate, but after about two months, Larm received what she considered a true gift.
The farm was beginning a five-year plan, which included intentions to develop early childhood programs. The education director at Tollgate recognized that Larm was a good fit for an outdoor education program, and he asked her to develop from the ground up. The product of her effort and research was Farm Sprouts.
“Children often had a traditional preschool, two or three days a week...and enrichment on those days they weren't in their traditional preschool,” Larm said.
The program touched on a vast amount of topics. Kids learned literacy as they read about the work they were doing, math as they measured the growth of their plants and kept track of weather conditions and sap flow during the maple sugaring season, and empathy by caring for the animals.
Larm said that in the program, core subjects are learned authentically, embedded in the work and play of the children. Larm gave the example of the kids learning risk management and problem solving skills as they dealt with a swarm of bumblebees in their raspberry patches.
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Parents of students that participated in the enrichment program said that their kids were more curious and observant as a result of it. These qualities were encouraged at Tollgate, Larm said. Students brought journals into the forest and made notes on what they saw around them every day.
“Sometimes it might be about a birthday cake or their mom, and sometimes it's a cool spider that they're watching,” Larm said.
The program at Tollgate is very beneficial to the kid’s development, Larm said.
“The research is showing that cognitively we're seeing boosts in everything from reading scores, to math scores, and building those deep connections to a place, to the land,” she said. “It speaks to the social/emotional learning that we want to see as well.”
Larm hopes to see the involvement of nature in a school setting become more common, and she said that there has been an incredible increase in nature preschools in the United States over the last ten years.
“Even your more traditional preschools...there are ways you can work to get your students, your children outside...” she said. “You don’t have to be a preschool in a nature center to get your kds outside.”
Larm left Tollgate to pursue her master's at MSU in 2018. She graduated last spring and moved back into the world of public education. She now works as Education Specialist at Bowers School Farm and at Johnson Nature Center, both located in Bloomfield Township.
She and her longtime colleague, Alan Jaros, with who she founded the Farm Sprouts program, are currently searching for local businesses and private donors to fund a garden project.
As for Tollgate, the farm only made it two weeks into their maple sugaring program before they had to shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The program is still inactive after facing funding challenges and has been closed since last March. Larm still feels a strong connection to Tollgate Farms, and she said that when they reopen, she will be there.
“I still feel as though I belong to that place,” she said.” “It's a place that I will, once they can open back up, I will return to and support and volunteer ... they'll never be able to get rid of me.”
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