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Environmental Factor, November 2012

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Durham Magazine highlights NIEHS/EPA early learning center

By Eddy Ball

Dona McNeill and Sue Esperson

The big people gathered the gardening team together. McNeill, left, is a frequent visitor to First Environments. Outdoor Learning Environment Specialist Sue Esperson, right, supervises the tending. (Photo courtesy of Mark Griffin)

Child at First Environments Early Learning Center

First Environments teaches important lessons about the natural world. This young gardener turned out in a color-coordinated outfit and watering can. (Photo courtesy of Mark Griffin)

This summer, Durham Magazine writer Mark Griffin profiled the First Environments Early Learning Center in a story titled “Eat (And Grow) Your Veggies.”  


The five-star childcare center, established in 1986 and located on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Research Triangle Park campus since 2005, serves children of employees and contractors at NIEHS and the EPA. Each year, students and teachers grow more than 600 pounds of pesticide-free produce in the center’s garden, and use the fresh vegetables for meals during the growing season.

Sustainability is an important part of the First Environments learning experience, for its nearly 200 infants, toddlers, and preschool children. In addition to its gardening program, the center features recycling and conservation activities, and uses rooftop solar panels to produce electricity for its facility and for resale to the grid.

NIEHS Employee Services Manager Dona McNeill is the NIEHS daycare liaison.

Produce from First Environments Early Learning Center

The rewards are tangible and immediate, as children prepare to eat the produce they have just helped to nurture. (Photo courtesy of Mark Griffin)

Sue Esperson and children

Esperson led the children in hands-on learning about helping plants grow. (Photo courtesy of Mark Griffin)

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