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Lessons from nature

Gardens are a great place to cultivate a love of science, as Sarah Jewell discovers

Gardening is a passion for Tony Pizzoferro, a teacher and enthusiastic member of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). He has spent many happy hours wandering around its beautiful showcase gardens at Wisley in Surrey.

He even went on his first date there with the woman who is now his wife.

At St Leonard's Church of England primary school, Streatham in Lambeth, south-east London, he is passionate about teaching science. It was his desire to marry his two interests that made him investigate how he could bring gardening into the national curriculum.

Mr Pizzoferro enquired whether Wisley would organise an inservice training day on scientific investigation into plants. He contacted Dr Jacqueline Chave, the senior education officer at Wisley, and arranged a day for all St Leonard's teaching staff. It was a huge success.

"Jacqueline gave us lots of ideas and activities and we all got direct experience of working with plants," says Mr Pizzoferro. "We toured garden and focused on a comparison of different habitats. We looked at seed dispersal, composting, and how plants grow. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience."

The day worked so well that Mr Pizzoferro contacted Lambeth and arranged another day for all the borough's science co-ordinators.

For the RHS, this initiative was perfect timing. The society has a rapidly growing schools membership and is actively encouraging city-based schools to become involved. The St Leonard's visit was the first time the society had made contact with an inner-city school.

"The RHS firmly believes that all children should have the opportunity to grow plants," says Dr Chave. "Inner-city pupils are often a step removed from nature. We have numerous excamples of the benefits that gardening can bring young people."

The society is focusing on how areas of the national curriculum can be taught through gardening. As Dr Chave says: "Gardening provides opportunities for children to develop social skills, such as patience, caring, respect, thus fitting in with citizenship. It can give children an insight into food production and seasonal produce which supports the recent government healthy eating scheme and it also provides a framework for knowledge and understanding about biodiversity and sustainability."

The Lambeth teachers who went to Wisley have since been invited back with their pupils, and Year 2 at St Leonard's have just had their first school visit with Mr Pizzoferro. The children were bubbling over with excitement as they rushed around to explore. They were particularly excited by the beautifully tended vegetable garden. They leant over the huge orange and yellow pumpkins, touching and feeling and smelling them. Mr Pizzoferro asked them what could be made from pumpkins and they thought hard but had no answer. "Pumpkin soup," he said.

The children were all given plastic buckets and encouraged to pick up anything lying on the ground. Soon their buckets were brimming with huge red and yellow apples, pine cones, leaves, bark, dandelion flowers, squashed tomatoes, berries, flowers, broad beans, acorns, chestnuts and conkers.

"It is delightful to see how much enjoyment they get from picking things up and looking at them and thinking about where they come from," says Mr Pizzoferro.

It was an exciting trip for all the children who enjoyed putting the plants in their natural context. For Mr Pizzoferro it was a joy to see the children exploring this natural environment. He will continue to expand upon what they have learnt in his classroom lessons. "Gardening is a pivotal part of my life, and I can get so much out of it," he says. "My classroom is full of plants and I talk to them whenever I can."

Contact the RHS online: schoolscheme.asp

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