Carolyn O'Grady sees how a school turned an unsightly Tarmac courtyard into a garden of delights.
Many schools have a parcel of land which at best serves no purpose and, at worst, is a depressing eyesore. Maun Infant and Nursery School in Ollerton, Nottinghamshire, had an unsightly rectangular Tarmac courtyard in the centre of the school and decided not only to turn it into something beautiful, but also to make it serve a purpose in every part of the curriculum.
Maun school is in a former mining village - the pit was closed about two years ago - and has a diverse intake which includes pupils whose parents are professionals and managers, and many from families where parents are among the long-term unemployed.
No visitor on entering the school could be unaware that Maun offers an extremely rich and stimulating environment. It is a lively, open-plan school with wall-to-wall art relating to all subjects. The Office for Standards in Education praised this "outstanding artwork".
Sketching, in particular, is seen as a way of encouraging children's powers of observation and sketchpads are just as often seen in the hands of a pupil as a pen or pencil. But "it's not just art for art's sake", says Sally Pell, science co-ordinator. "We teach them to look closely. They use magnifying glasses if necessary." Many of the pictures on the walls relate to the garden including colourful studies of the pond and large, detailed drawings of flowers.
The garden project started more than two years ago with a round of fundraising for materials. For the actual work, however, the school called on the goodwill of its parents, teachers and pupils. They all shifted the Tarmac, dug the pond, built the walls and brought in plants and materials. GCSE students at a nearby school made some of the furniture. The only paid work was done by ceramic artists who helped with a seascape mosaic.
For the children, designing and building the garden provided a continuous study for a year. It began with a discussion on what they wanted - a pond and bridge featured heavily. Then headteacher Mary Haig's husband, who is an architect, brought along a planning game (a box full of stand-up paper models of garden features and accessories, including bushes, fountains, hedges or furniture), and one class of five and six-year-olds worked with him to design the garden.
"It got them away from talking about Disneyland and gave them something concrete to work with," says Mary Haig of the planning game. It also provided ample work on measurement as children calculated what would and wouldn't fit into the garden.
The central feature of the garden is a colourful mosaic, with a sea motif, and brick seating surrounding it. Elsewhere there is a shallow pond with fountain and bridge (called the "Monet bridge" - water lilies grow underneath); picnic table; a bench which encircles a flowering cherry tree; a sundial; a bird-table and rabbit hutch with a small area for the animal to run in.
It sounds a lot to squeeze into a space which measures about 14 metres by 10 metres, but the effect is by no means cluttered, in fact it is one of space, colour and tranquillity.
The garden's purpose, however, is emphatically, "an outdoor learning centre - an extension to the classroom", says Mary Haig. "It was not a question of planting natural species and getting the butterflies in. It's very formal in design."
Science, in particular, has benefited. Sally Pell has devised a number of activities based in the garden. Children can, for example, investigate the life cycles of plant and animal life in the garden and pond.
On the day I visited, seven-year-old Kayleigh Smith, sketchbook in hand, was conducting research on water plants. She'd investigated a number of species in the library and was now drawing those in the pond. Already she had found 20 and identified two categories: those that are tall and grow above the water and those that live underwater.
The sundial is another source of scientific inspiration. After studying shadows on the mosaic and watching them change, children move on to investigate how the sundial works, which involves projects on day and night and the seasons.
The dial, Sally Pell points out, is on Greenwich Mean Time so children can discuss the difference between that and British Summer Time.
The pond has to be replenished with water, a maintenance task which, like many, is done by the children. Their questions about why this needs to be done leads to work on the effects of evaporation.
With the aid of pond dippers and periscopes, children can also investigate pond life, and birdlife is also being studied. So, for example, children will compare the types of bird which visit the large general ground with the shyer types which come to the bird table in the new garden.
An abundance of different materials has purposefully been used. "They can investigate things that are alive or have never been alive, for example wood and bricks," says Sally Pell who also points to the wide variety of different textures - pebbles of all sorts of shapes and sizes; sand and shells, earth and wood - to be found in the garden.
The variety of textures is also calculated to provide interest for the several partially-sighted children in the school. Herbs with strong smells and flowers with vivid colouring were planted with their needs in mind.
At present the garden is only used by the infant school, but it has been so successful that plans are already underway for a special garden for the nursery school.