Creativity for control freaks

4th March 2005 at 00:00
Peter Greaves shows how teachers can let go without losing it. This week: Big oak trees from acorns grow

I have two memories of gardening as a primary pupil. One is of a beautiful afternoon spent digging and planting with some friends on the little patch of land outside Mrs Cheeseman's room. I can even remember that the class inside were doing "time and tune". As I dug with my useless kiddie-friendly trowel, I sang along. The second memory is about a month later, when my teacher took the class to see how the garden had been vandalised by yobbos.

All our plants had been ripped up and the flower beds ruined.

I know this is not a unique experience for me, or for schools. It seems increasingly rare for schools to have a garden to which pupils have access.

It's a real shame, because we know what an inclusive activity gardening is and how many skills it develops, let alone how much pleasure it can give.

It brings "green plants" science to life, it provides a contrast to the instant gratification hobbies of our time, it puts our pupils in tune with children all over the world for whom farming is a way of life. It can really make them think. Asking them to think about how a seed contains all the ingredients for life to begin, if treated right, can spark discussions about the very meaning of life.

At a school-wide level, I still think it's worth the risk. The garden may be vandalised; perhaps it won't. Perhaps the experience stopped me from being a vandal myself. Alternatives are hanging baskets, planters, grow bags in more secure areas. These still allow pupils to have a first-hand experience of the miracle that is plant growth.

In the classroom, pot plants are a must, but they can be a testament to endurance in the face of neglect, rather than an opportunity to develop green fingers. Bulbs in glass vases still make me gasp as the roots grow and curl, followed by greenery and blooms.

The best things, though, are lettuces. They grow superbly in the germ-filled hothouse that is the classroom, even if you have no eye-level windowsills to put them on. Get an old plastic crate, line it if it leaks, put in a bit of gravel and some potting compost and you will be able to grow enough lettuces to munch on together. There is something intangibly satisfying about eating produce that has been grown as a class.

My most recent memory of gardening at school was when I found I had some sunflower seeds left after giving some out to my class. In Jack-and-the-Beanstalk style, I just threw them onto the soil. On returning after the summer holiday, there were three beaming yellow giants smiling at me through the window. Blooming marvellous. It's enough to make you sell your interactive whiteboard to buy some chickens.

Peter Greaves teaches at Dovelands Primary School in Leicester Email: primary@tes.co.uk

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