BROOKSVILLE — Kids like to play in the dirt. That's a given.
Now the Hernando County 4-H program is giving them a reason to do so — and with lots of learning and fun in the bargain.
In the first of three day camps at Hernando County Cooperative Extension Service last week, 6- to 12-year-olds got dirty, sometimes slimy, and sometimes licked their fingers as they examined the elements of soil; built a compost pile complete with live earthworms; constructed mock bugs from marshmallows, pretzel sticks, stringy candies and corn chips; and planted a pizza garden.
The Diggin' in the Dirt Junior Gardeners Camp was the first foray for 4-H as it launched a set of weeklong summer programs, said 4-H agent Nancy Moores. She was impressed with the first turnout of 14 youngsters on short notice. The kids gathered from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the extension complex on Oliver Avenue, moving from short lecture stations to outdoor gardens to hands-on work tables.
Early on, they constructed soil layers, mimicked by strata of crushed Oreo cookies, dry pudding mix, ash, parts of plants and flowers, and gummy worms to simulate the real creepy-crawlies that contribute aeration and water filtration.
Youngsters dug their hands into the real thing under the direction of John Korycki of the Florida Yards and Neighborhoods program as they built a compost pile: potting soil, shredded newspaper, live earthworms and some decomposing lettuce and other vegetation on which the earthworms would feed.
Worms easily led to the importance of bugs in the environment, a presentation by Stacy Strickland — "our bug man" and the agency's small farm expert, Moores said.
Following a PowerPoint introduction to insects and their three body parts, Strickland led the kids to a table set with marshmallows and other items and directed them to construct a bug. Strickland popped a marshmallow, dubbed as an insect's thorax, into his mouth.
A youngster exclaimed: "He ate a bug!"
"I want you to make a bug from all these edible parts. The thorax is the part the legs are attached to," Strickland said, referring to the pretzel sticks.
"Don't eat all your legs," interjected program volunteer Master Gardener Pat Gerniga. Roving the table, she coached, "Where do the feelers go? Where do you put the wings?" Chips served as the wings.
"Remember, not all bugs are pretty," Moores said as she encouraged the youngsters.
But 10-year-old Edy's was decidedly beautiful. She had painted it with colored icing.
Jim Moll, the extension urban horticulturist, observed good-naturedly: "Your fingers are all purple and blue." She agreed to wash up.
As Strickland launched into a bug's eating processes — piercing, chewing and sponging — drink pouches with straws were handed around, and he explained that the slurpers were piercing.
Flies have sponging mouth parts, he continued. "They throw up on your food."
"Blah!" the kids responded in chorus.
"That's where the germs come from," Moores said.
But many insects are good, Strickland said. They pollinate flowers, produce honey, kill harmful bugs and help to decompose animal waste.
Insects aside, the youngsters planted tomatoes and herbs for a pizza garden.
Moores said she hopes to conduct another multiday program for kids over winter break. It too will be taught by extension staffers and funded with help from Master Gardeners and 4-H Club donations.
Beth Gray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.