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10/22/2017 7:29 am  #1

How a school garden has transformed the way we teach

How a school garden has transformed the way we teach

From finding fresh ways to engage children in maths to improving behaviour, we’ve put a garden at the heart of learning

It was in 2004 that I decided to install a garden at Charlton Manor Primary School. I’d just taken up the role of headteacher, and there was some derelict land on the school site. I’d seen the news reports about children lacking knowledge of where their food came from and felt that we as a society had become very detached about food. The reason for this was clear to me: we were no longer educating our children about food in schools.

So I saw a garden as an opportunity for the children to learn in a real way, in an outdoor context, while also instilling an understanding of where their food came from and the importance of eating fruit and vegetables. But I also wanted to use it to cover other topics: life cycles, flowering plants, pollination, adaptation, creative writing and report writing. I believed that plenty of subjects could be well taught in a garden, while increasing pupils’ activity levels and encouraging teamwork.

There was a behavioural element, too. With many teachers facing comments from children such as “It wasn’t my fault” and “It wasn’t only me”, here was our chance to develop a sense of responsibility. We took the pupils out to local gardens and allotments to give them inspiration for what they might want from a school garden, and asked them to play a practical role. From this, their ideas included areas to grow fruit and vegetables, a wildlife pond complete with bridge for viewing, a hide to observe wildlife and a greenhouse set within a maze so that the garden didn’t reveal all of its secrets straight away.

Four years on, gardening has become a central part of the curriculum. A recent creative writing task on buried treasure took on a whole new meaning with the garden as the backdrop, as pupils used the sights and sounds as inspiration. In maths measurement classes, children have mapped out flower beds rather than relying on small-scale drawings in textbooks. We’ve produced charts and graphs by measuring sprouting sunflowers, and recorded weather information from the weather station and charted its effects.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing though. At the beginning, we struggled to get some of the staff on board, due to concerns that behavioural issues would worsen – because if they couldn’t trust the children in the classroom, wouldn’t they be worse outside? But once those teachers started making use of the garden there was recognisable behaviour change in those pupils. The children worked as a team, were engaged in their tasks, and took responsibility for nurturing the plants.

We needed to think about funding, too. We’ve had to find money from the school fund for a full-time gardener – paid at the support staff rate, he’s employed all year round to plan and deliver lessons with the teachers. We also decided to enlist the help of a landscape architect, and we were lucky enough to have a school fundraiser to make this happen.

Of course, there are other ways of doing it. I know other schools that have taken different routes to support such projects – identifying parent and grandparent volunteers, teaching assistants or premises managers with a knowledge of gardening who are willing to share their expertise and support teachers. Others have opted to build their gardens in local allotments and tap into the talents of the dedicated, local community.

Community, in its various guises, is a big thing for us. Produce from the garden is sold in the school shop, run by the children on weekdays. We’ve also begun selling produce, such as tomatoes, potatoes, eggs and honey (from our chickens and beehives) to parents and others, and radishes, mint, honey and green salad to a local restaurant and via a stall at Borough Market in central London, helping us to channel funds back into the garden. The extra funding has helped us to buy resources such as garden tools, bigger, costlier plants such as fruit trees and other basic materials to create things like raised beds.

The Food Growing in Schools Taskforce makes clear the wide ranging benefits of school gardens: learning, increased wellbeing and understanding of the natural environment. Its research suggests that schools and pupils are enriched by growing food and the behaviours acquired through such work. Researchers have also shown that outdoor learning can add value to everyday experiences in the classroom.

I’d agree. The garden has transformed the school and provided wonderful learning opportunities for the children. It has brought the community together in a huge way and continues to develop. That’s why for me, a garden in whatever guise – from wooded plot to a handful of makeshift containers, hanging baskets or a window sill – should be viewed as an essential learning tool for all schools.

Tim Baker is headteacher at Charlton Manor Primary School, one of 1,000 schools celebrating the tenth anniversary of the RHS Campaign for School Gardening.

We live in a time in which decent and otherwise sensible people are surrendering too easily to the hectoring of morons or extremists. 

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