The sheep and the lion holding hands as friends, the jellyfish followed the mermaid and climbed onto land…… Indeed, this is a completely unfamiliar world to us!
Standing in front of a group of kindergarteners dressed up as various land and sea animals, teacher Au Foong Yee started counting these “creatures”. There were altogether ten rabbits. Then she asked purposefully, “We have leopards and lions here; will they eat up the other smaller animals?” Seeing the children vigorously shaking their heads, she proceeded to ask, “Really? Is it because of this place? Where are we now?”
“The Fruit and Vegetable Planet!” the children replied in unison.
Their simple answer rang out loud and clear, reflecting their mindful attentiveness. This imaginary planet, with its every tree and plant, and even the flight vehicles, were products of the vivid imagination of the 4 to 6-year-olds in Tzu Chi Great Love PreSchool. These little ones had spent three weeks working hard in creating them.
Three Weeks’ of Painstaking Preparation and Diligent Learning
During the mid-year school holidays this year, when the teachers at Tzu Chi Great Love PreSchool announced the plan to create the Fruit and Vegetable Planet, their young charges were filled with excitement and expectations, and applied for the post they desired to take up – space technician, designer, Fruit and Veggie Family, service staff, and chef. Under the guidance of their respective teachers, they were then divided into groups for training and preparation.
The two space shuttles that would take them to the Fruit and Vegetable Planet were assembled from recyclables. The fuselage was made from cardboard and the propulsion jets were made from PET bottles. This was the finished product assembled by the space technicians under their teachers’ explanations and instructions. The final design of the space shuttles was chosen out of the dream designs of the space technicians. After choosing the most popular design by voting, everyone worked happily together to create the vehicles, cutting, pasting, and drawing colourful shapes and designs to make their flight vehicles beautiful.
The children were also well equipped with space helmets and space suits, also made from recyclables, such as paper bags and plastic bags. In the innocent eyes of these children, these materials could be turned into anything their imagination desired. In addition, the service staff and chefs worked hard to learn the ropes in good service and cooking skills, while the designers decorated the planet’s environment with various types of flora and greenery, as well as cartoon billboards.
However, all these were not the key necessary requirement to land on the Fruit and Vegetable Planet.
“What is your name?”
“Where are you from?”
“Are you a vegetarian?”
Four serious-looking “customs officers” stood in a line, and posed these questions to the little children heading towards the Fruit and Vegetable Planet.
Only upon hearing a response of “yes, I eat vegetarian”, would the “customs officers” give the much-relieved children their “stamp of approval”, to proceed with their space journey to the Fruit and Vegetable Planet.
However, the smooth-flowing customs clearance came to a sudden stop, because one of the children sheepishly answered: “I didn’t eat vegetarian.” The “customs officer” turned towards the teacher-in-charge, his childlike face looking somewhat lost……
“About 60% of our children come from non-vegetarian households,” said Audrey Koh, principal of Tzu Chi Great Love PreSchool. She further explained that although the childcare centre advocates vegetarianism and provides vegetarian breakfast, lunch and snacks, once the children are back at home, their dietary choice is up to their parents to decide. In the previous year, the mid-year school holidays’ activities had the theme of “Knowing Tzu Chi”. This year, the teachers hoped to more actively promote vegetarianism, and held for the first time the 90-day Fruit and Vegetable Planet activities, right from the first day of the mid-year holidays until two months after school re-opens. “As far as the children are concerned, this is a fun and interesting activity. So, they will not be resistant to vegetarianism,” said Koh.
The teachers first led the children to the zoo to personally learn about the animals, so that they would understand the concept: “animals are not food but friends”. Then, through taking responsibilities for their respective tasks, and personally creating the Fruit and Vegetable Planet of their hearts’ desires, the vegetarian practice was gradually ingrained in them. The children were also taught to keep record of whether they managed to eat vegetarian for each meal every day, by marking red, yellow or green on their record card. If they could not have vegetarian meals, they would mark with a cross.
In order to successfully land on the Fruit and Vegetable Planet on 22nd June, many children started asking their parents during mealtimes: “Is this (food) vegetarian?”
Darryl Huang, who is only 4-years-old, spoke clearly: “I can’t visit the Fruit and Vegetable Planet if I eat meat.” If there were meat dishes on the table, he would say, “I will (only) take the vegetables.” He also knew that if he ate the meat of an animal, its mummy and daddy wouldn’t be able to “find” it.
Soon, it was the day the children embarked on their journey to the Fruit and Vegetable Planet – they took a pledge together, collected their “Fruit and Vegetable Planet Passports”, passed through customs, went through tunnels, and rode the space shuttles to finally land on the planet. These brought endless waves of excitement to the children, who laughed in delight as they immersed in the fun!
“Welcome to the Fruit and Vegetable Planet!”
“Grandpa Vegetable” Wong Chong Koon and “Grandma Fruit” Tang Boon Eng opened their arms wide to welcome the children. Two of their grandchildren are also enrolled in the Great Love PreSchool. As they ferry their grandchildren to and from the childcare centre, the kids there are largely familiar with both of them. Thus, the school principal had specially invited both of them to play the roles of the kind gatekeepers of the Fruit and Vegetable Planet.
A daughter of Wong and Tang is a vegetarian, so her son was a “vegetarian” even before he was born. In the past, their grandson studied in a kindergarten that didn’t provide vegetarian meals, and they used to prepare vegetarian lunch at home and bring it to the school for him every day. Although it was troublesome, they didn’t give up. It was only after their daughter found out about Tzu Chi Great Love PreSchool and arranged for her son to be transferred to this school that they finally solved their daily challenge of providing vegetarian lunch for their grandson.
Seeing how joyful and delighted the children were as they landed on the Fruit and Vegetable Planet and dressed up as various animals, the elderly couple couldn’t help but be infected by the children’s innocent joy. Wong Chong Koon said, “This activity is very good. It encourages children to eat more vegetables and learn the importance of protecting Earth.” Tang Boon Eng added that after witnessing the teachers’ dedication and hard work, she was motivated to join the event.
Accompanied by Teachers Every Step Along the Way
The little children changed into their animal costumes, which they have personally made with the help of their parents, and joyfully landed on the Fruit and Vegetable Planet. Firstly, their teacher, Au Foong Yee, explained the meaning behind the pledge, as a reminder and an encouragement for the children to cultivate good eating etiquette, and not to be picky eaters or food wasters. Au made an agreement with the children that in the following two months, everyone would adopt the lifestyle of the Fruit and Vegetable Planet, and continue to keep a vegetarian diet. They were to record their daily meals in their Fruit and Vegetable Planet Passports.
With rousing applause, the Fruit and Veggie Family, whose members had been rehearsing for a long time, made their appearances on-stage, to present lively sign language song items and a skit. The skit depicted the story of Xiao Xue (“Little Snow”), the lead character who disliked eating vegetables. It was only after witnessing the ruthless hunting of animals by a hunter that she was awakened to the importance of protecting all living creatures (by not consuming meat). The slideshow playing in the background featured hand-drawn pictures by the children. Amazingly, every single child remembered his/her lines and roles throughout the entire performance.
Teacher Chen Jia-Yu accompanied the children in the sign language segment until it was completed, and immediately switched roles to become the narrator for the skit. In the company of such an energetic group of children, she was able to maintain her stern composure as a teacher, and yet still able to lead the children with childlike energy. She was also able to make the naughty children follow her instructions without resorting to stern or harsh words.
The teachers’ patience and guidance through the whole process had been an important factor to the success of this fun-filled activity. After the performance, the little children had to transform the multi-purpose classroom into the “Fruit and Vegetable Planet Restaurant” within the short span of half an hour. They worked hastily to lay the tables with flowers and utensils, and those who were playing the role of service staff served their own classmates as patrons of the restaurant. The older children were able to perform their roles quite well, but as for the 3 to 4-year-olds, they were rather scatter-brained, and needed the firm but patient hands of their teachers to assist them. And the teachers retained a calm composure while patiently instructing their young charges.
The menu for the day’s lunch was oolong tea rice balls and chocolate zucchini cakes, all hand-made by the little chefs on the planet. Many of the kids wolfed down the food and even asked for more servings. One boy in particular, Chai Ye Han, single-handedly polished off five delicious rice balls. He said, “I like the rice balls very much, because there is no meat in them.”
Standing next to Chai Ye Han was 6-year-old Ha Zi Yang. Among the little chefs, they were considered “big brothers”, and already knew how to help their teacher to look after the younger children. Before and after each cooking class, they would lead the rest in arranging and wiping the tables and chairs. Knowing that their younger little “brothers and sisters” were always filled with curiosity for new stuff, they would let them have the chance to do things first.
Teacher Au Foong Yee commented that through the process of planning for the activity and hands-on practice, the kids would deepen their learning experience. She gave an example: “We always tell the children to eat more vegetables, but to some of them, it is not easy because of the taste of vegetables and so on. This is very challenging, but if they cook the food themselves, they will know that it is not easy to prepare it. Then, they will learn to appreciate it more.”
The Fruit and Vegetable Planet activity had been conducted in many Tzu Chi kindergartens in Malaysia, and had garnered good feedback. The Tzu Chi kindergarten in Johor Bahru had generously shared their lesson plans and resources with the teachers of the Great Love PreSchool in Singapore. Like their young charges, the teachers had greatly anticipated the launch of the Fruit and Vegetable Planet activity.
Teacher Au also praised the high level of unity and cooperation among her peers, and thought that the success of this activity truly lived out the teaching of the Jing Si Aphorism, “Do good with united hearts, work with harmony, love and encourage one another, and reach out to offer help”. She expressed her hope: “Today is only a beginning. We will continue to instill the concept of vegetarianism in the children.”