On a field trip last week that was literally a trip to a field, a group of kindergartners learned french fries aren't grown at McDonald's. The trip took the class to a potato field, where they dug up the spuds Americans love to french fry.
Late Thursday morning, nine carloads of kindergartners and parent volunteers arrived at Jim and Peggy Arness' homestead in North Kenai. After eating lunch in the backyard overlooking Lake Arness, the Sears Elementary School students got down to the afternoon's business.
Peggy Arness led the kindergartners along a path through the trees to a clearing planted with rows of potatoes. Each kid was given a large red coffee can and turned loose on the field of unsuspecting spuds.
If there's one thing kids don't need to be shown how to do, it's dig in the dirt. The little gardeners yanked at the top of the plants and pawed at the ground around the roots -- often working in teams of two or three -- to free the clusters of potatoes from the soil.
For the kindergartners, the fun in digging for potatoes is in finding something hidden, Arness said.
"The potatoes are just like Easter eggs. It's like a treasure hunt," she said.
The only break the kids took from the digging was to empty their coffee cans. The kindergartners marched their cans full of potatoes to a row of four garden carts and a wheel barrow at the edge of the field and emptied their harvest, before jumping back into the fray.
Now and again, a small voice chirped above the chaos as a kid got excited.
"Wow! look what I found," said one kindergartner, who dug up a particularly large spud.
The kids' excitement in-fected most of the parent volunteers, who couldn't keep their hands out of the dirt and helped the kids dig up the more stubborn potatoes -- those buried the deepest.
In less than an hour, the kids had emptied the field and filled the carts. But the work wasn't done yet.
Teams of four or five kids pushed the carts back to the house and dumped them on a plastic tarp to be counted. The kindergartners filled their coffee cans with 10 potatoes and dumped each load on another tarp a few feet away.
The kids practiced counting to 10, while their teacher, Eileen Bryson, counted off each load. The total: 2,340 potatoes.
Bryson has been bringing her kindergarten class to the Arness' potato patch each fall for the last 15 years. Carol King's daughter, Brianna, visited the patch five years ago as a member of Bryson's class.
This year, King came along as a volunteer with her kindergartner, Cierra. King thinks the annual field trip is educational, as well as a good time.
"I think it's great. The kids learn where potatoes come from. They learn team work. They learn counting and they have fun," she said.
The learning doesn't end with the field trip. Before returning to school, each kindergartner picked out a potato to take back for a class project.
The kindergartners will use the potatoes to practice a range of skills from math to writing. Among other things, the class will weigh and measure each potato, make a graph of the results and write a story about the field trip, Bryson said.
"(The project) hits almost all the different curriculum areas in one shot, over many days," she said.
The class potato project will end with a tasting party of baked, boiled and mashed potatoes. The kindergartners won't get to taste their potatoes french fried, however, due to health concerns, Bryson said.
Bryson believes in hands-on experience, both inside and outside the classroom. Her classroom is home to ants, ladybugs, crickets, grasshoppers, walking sticks and meal worm larva for a unit she teaches on insects, while her class's next field trip will be to go cranberry picking.
"Particularly for young children, I think it's important to have the real thing to look at and handle," Bryson said.
Before leaving the Arness's place, the kids each pulled up a carrot from the vegetable garden for a snack, then headed into the house for milk and cookies.
The kindergartners sat in a big circle while Peggy Arness thanked them for digging up her potatoes and asked a question that could have only one answer.
"Did you have fun?" she asked.
The circle answered in chorus, "Yeah!"
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