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Curriculum - Cultivating the mind

School gardens can teach children about the environment, food and their own health, discovers Dorothy Lepkowska

School gardens can teach children about the environment, food and their own health, discovers Dorothy Lepkowska

Lunchtimes at Edwalton Primary School are a deeply satisfying experience for pupils in more ways than one. Not only are the children eating good, wholesome food, but they also have the pleasure of knowing that much of it was grown by them, in their own school gardens.

As Daniel Cook, 10, explains: "We don't use pesticides and you can tell the food is organic because it tastes better.

"I think more pupils have school dinners because they know they are eating stuff from the garden. It is teaching us how to be healthy. I think we have more awareness about how food is grown than most children of our age."

He is probably right. Edwalton, in Nottingham, has been involving pupils in gardening for the past 15 years as part of an ethos that puts caring for nature, animals and others at the centre of its curriculum. Its reputation has grown and the school was a finalist in the sustainability category of this year's Teaching Awards.

Whole sections of the school site are given over to plots of land that pupils can tend individually or in small groups, growing flowers, strawberries or vegetables. Larger, whole-school gardens supply the school kitchen with produce such as tomatoes, courgettes, potatoes, marrows and beans. The school's site manager allows access to pupils and parents during the holidays so plots can be tended.

Charlotte Lee, 10, shares a small plot with a friend, on which they grow flowers. She said: "It has taught me that it is good to know about nature and to have something to cultivate and grow. We are learning in a way that is not just academic but practical."

In addition, Edwalton Primary has a three-acre area of woodland on site and a small farm on which pupils look after chickens, pigs, goats and rabbits. They not only keep bees, but they make their own honey and sell it.

Storytelling often takes place in hollowed-out trees or another of the outdoor learning areas that have been developed. Flowers and leaves are collected and used in art or as a stimulus for creative writing in English. Children really have first-hand experience of nature here.

"We believe that the pupils have a fundamental need to be in touch with the environment and to feel they are making a difference to the planet," says Brian Owens, the headteacher. "We know we are never going to save the whale or the polar bear by planting a few seeds, but we believe we are making significant changes to the lives of our pupils and how they perceive the world.

"We can't feed the whole school at lunchtimes with what we grow, but we can make our efforts visible to pupils so that they know where their food is coming from and how it is grown.

"Sustainability is a central part of our school, which impacts upon participation, engagement and levels of ownership.

"It is wonderful when you take them into the gardens or the wood in spring and you can almost see the world coming to life before your eyes. The look on their faces is wonderful. As a result, the school is such a happy place."

It is estimated that about 15,000 UK schools have their own gardens, dedicated either to growing flowers and shrubs or cultivating their own produce. Outdoor activities such as gardening are expected to increase in importance as Government initiatives such as Learning Outside the Classroom become more widespread.

Ken Elkes works for the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens, which helps about 100 schools around the country every year set up and tend their own gardens, many of which are located in urban areas with limited space. Schools with little or no space for gardening are encouraged to get involved with their local community gardens and to help develop those instead.

"Teachers have told us about children who do not know where their food comes from and looked amazed to be told that potatoes come from the ground," Mr Elkes says.

"There are huge benefits to giving children opportunities to work outside, and there is evidence that it is particularly beneficial and liberating to those who find the confines of a classroom difficult, such as pupils with special needs. It is also hugely liberating for teachers to organise lessons that can use the stimulus of outdoors."

Mr Elkes says outdoor pursuits such as gardening allow young children to acquire a variety of skills, ranging from good hygiene and the need to wash hands after touching soil and animals, to the health and safety aspects of using tools and equipment, teamwork, and even dexterity.

"They also learn about self-esteem because they get pleasure and satisfaction out of seeing results in their garden, which makes them feel good about themselves," he adds.

"At a time when the world population is growing and we are in the middle of a bleak economic climate, it is vitally important that pupils are taught to grow their own produce and to make the link between what they eat and where it comes from."

Two years ago, Charnock Hall Primary School in Sheffield gave pupils the use of two quadrangles so that they could grow their own vegetables and flowers.

Sarah Scarborough, the deputy head and Year 3 teacher, says: "We are lucky to have a large site, and the way the school buildings are positioned meant it was possible to turn over some of the site to cultivation.

"We have developed raised beds and have also planted lots of small trees around the site, which will grow over the years."

Each of Charnock Hall's 382 pupils is expected to participate in gardening activities, but some are keener than others. Pupils grow potatoes, sweetcorn, tomatoes, onions, courgettes, carrots, beans, peppers and chillies.

Some produce is grown in greenhouses provided by families collecting Morrisons vouchers, which were offered as part of the supermarket's Let's Grow campaign, which allows schools to trade coupons for gardening equipment and tools.

Although most gardening activities take place in breaktimes and after- school clubs, it is increasingly becoming part of the curriculum. Pupils have been communicating on Skype with professional gardeners, picking up tips on the best methods to use for the maximum yield.

"We use what we grow in a number of ways," Ms Scarborough says. "Green beans were harvested over the summer and have been frozen in the school kitchen for use with lunches over the winter. The tomatoes and onions, meanwhile, were turned into relish by a member of the local community, which was then given back to the school to be sold to parents and the community."

The gardens allow pupils to hone and develop their business and enterprise skills. Every Friday, members of the gardening club research the prices of local fresh produce on the internet before taking orders from teachers for a 500g box of whichever vegetables are seasonal and ready for harvesting from the school's gardens.

"The garden is having a huge impact on children because they can see where their food comes from and how it grows. They really love seeing it grow and are excited about the different ways that produce can be used," Ms Scarborough adds.

"Furthermore, lots of pupils have taken what they have learnt home and have told us they are helping relatives with their allotments, or that small sections of their garden have been turned over for growing vegetables. So they are spreading the word to their parents and the wider community."

Future projects being planned at the school include working with a local farm to produce their own sausages and chipolatas, which pupils will eat during their annual school Christmas meal.

Dr Emma Noble, the Soil Association's Food for Life partnership director, believes that the only way to engage pupils effectively with healthy food is to involve them in growing it.

The Soil Organisation has been campaigning to transform food culture in schools, encouraging practical cooking and promoting the link between growing food and school meals. It is involved in a number of schemes and offers awards to schools making effective, sustainable strides towards introducing healthy eating to the curriculum.

"The benefits of school gardens are endless and teach children about the planet and life generally," she says.

"For example, pupils gain an understanding of the seasons and how some food cannot be grown in this country at certain times of the year, which means it must be imported. They also discover which insects are useful to help food grow and which need to be controlled so the crop is not ruined.

"Often, however, schools do not choose the right varieties and will opt for those that need harvesting when there is no one at school - for example, during the summer holidays. This is something that organisations such as this can advise on.

"School gardens are a wonderful way for children to learn to understand the world. What they learn about gardening and food production will stay with them always."


If you are considering starting a school garden or need tips to help your garden flourish, try the following resources:

- Growing Schools

- Let's Grow campaign worksInformation-for-teachers

- Royal Society of Horticulture's Campaign for School Gardening

- Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens

- Food for Life Partnership

- The Kids Garden

- Garden Organic for Schools Join and receive a free set of instruction cards about growing food

- Soil Association

- Learning Outside the Classroom

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