Nature Study helps to extend the use of your garden and encourages children to explore habitats beyond the School

Nature Study helps to extend the use of your garden and encourages children to explore habitats beyond the School

Previous posts on school gardening have looked at laying the foundations of a School Garden project, designing your garden and getting the project off the ground. This post looks at how to develop your garden so that it becomes a key resource for the School and wider community.

1. Get into the curriculum

Don’t relegate your garden to just an ‘extra curricular’ activity or club – though these are useful as ways of enhancing the core purpose of your garden: to support children’s learning as part of the school’s curriculum (see 3 below). It might be wise to focus initial garden activity on one or two year groups/classes, so you get the most interested teachers involved (and maybe on your steering group). You can experiment and understand what is working and what isn’t. Once they’ve seen the garden in operation others, including less enthusiastic teachers, will want to get in on the action! Some countries (especially the USA, where School Gardening seems to be well established) have comprehensive curriculum guides for school gardening which link into the wider curriculum of the School.

The recently released draft National Curriculum for UK Schools features children growing plants in the primary years, so this may well give a boost to school gardening and curriculum plans and ideas may follow.There are also some useful guides which enable some basic skills and knowledge to be covered in your gardening activities from some of the national campaigns, especially the Royal Horticultural Society’s ‘Campaign for School Gardening’  and Garden Organic’s work for the ‘Food for Life’ Partnership.

The school could focus on a theme or topic for a number of weeks (say a half term) and weave the School Garden into this work, which could build on work started off in the classroom. As an example my own local school is focusing on ‘Fairy tales’ this half term and so children are getting involved in sowing turnips and beans with links to specific stories. This approach can also work well for specific science topics like ‘insects and animals’, ‘seeds and germination’ or ‘planting and the seasons’.

Don’t forget the importance of basic gardening skills too – I ‘ve been delivering some sessions on tool safety, use and cleanliness linked into preparing the soil and sowing etc.

It’s also a good idea to keep a lesson plan book to record what has been taught and the results in terms of what did and didn’t work, to aid future planning – it’s important to keep making adjustments and small changes to sessions to keep them interesting, new and relevant.

Basic gardening skills, like how to carry tools safely, are an essential part of the curriculum

Basic gardening skills, like how to carry tools safely, are an essential part of the curriculum

2. Leadership

As the use of the Garden grows, so will the need for a dedicated person to coordinate and manage it – the ‘Garden Coordinator’ or equivalent. This role is a bit like the School Librarian in that they link with all classes as they come into and out of the garden, helping them to make the most of this important resource (and also making some tasty withdrawals at harvest time!). The role is also important in contributing to discussions about the curriculum and ways in which the garden can be used as a key resource for the school’s programme of learning. The Garden Coordinator may well start off as a volunteer, but in due course it may be necessary to make this a paid position. As suggested in a previous post, the ongoing funding required to support this could come from the School Budget, but more likely it will be found (at least in part) from the Parents’/Friends’ Association and possibly supplemented through regular fundraising activities. Another important job for the Garden Coordinator is to facilitate annual evaluations of the garden. Devise a simple but systematic evaluation questionnaire for staff,volunteers and others to complete so that you can reflect and use the information to plan ahead.

3. Go beyond the formal curriculum

The garden should first and foremost be used as part of the school curriculum, but don’t ignore opportunities to deepen its contribution to learning. For example it can be a great place to begin to understand about the local ecosystem and specific habitats – ‘Nature Study’. It’s important to use unexpected opportunities to deepen and enrich the learning going on – e.g. the arrival of a particular insect or animal in the garden or children pulling flowers apart looking for developing seeds. A good way of getting children to strengthen their writing and observational skills is for them to fill out a ‘Garden Diary’ after each visit ro record what they’ve done and seen and any wider lessons learned. These records (probably best to invest in some robust folders that can withstand outside use) can provide a wonderful presentation of achievement over the year and serve to underline the important role the garden plays in school life.

4. Manage your Garden

The Garden Coordinator is the focus for how the garden functions, guiding the different classes in the tasks needed at different times of the year to keep the garden looking good and working well. With their Steering Group/ Committee, they can also organise a few days when more intensive effort is needed and the wider community (especially parents and staff) can get involved. These ‘Garden Gang’ days or their equivalent are the opportunity to get big jobs done – e.g laying paths, constructing glasshouses and sheds, digging over beds, clearing ponds and so on. The Garden Coordinator will also need to produce a weekly schedule of which classes are using the garden and what they will be doing, plus the staff and other support that will be available. Initially children’s excitement at being in the garden will make for a bit of a roller coaster as they are easily distracted by any novel or unusual thing they see, or touch, or smell (I recently had some ‘interesting’ if not unexpected reactions to handling manure for example!). Whilst it is important to try and use these opportunities creatively, the Garden Coordinator and supporting staff should strive towards getting classes into a quiet, focused way of working so that they eventually arrive in the garden, prepare and get on with what they need to do in increasingly ‘self-directed’ mode (especially older children). Some ideas for helping to bring this about include:

  • Dividing the class into manageable groups (say of 6 or 7 for primary years) – this will enable two or more different activities to be rotated around the groups either within a session or from week to week.

  • ‘Digging pit’ – it might be an idea to have a separate space/bed where nothing is grown but where ‘idle hands’ can be directed to dig over the ground –  good for digging practice if nothing else!

  • Recruit parent volunteers  – as well as teachers and learning support assistants it could be useful to get some additional help from willing parents. Make the most of their skills and expertise (as they will probably be interested and knowledgeable gardeners) and if warranted organise a rota so that they come in and work regularly with particular classes or groups. The Garden Coordinator can reach out to parents of reception class children who may be new to the school and are keen to make a positive contribution to their child’s learning. This additional help will make it easier to conduct garden sessions and make for a richer experience for the children (and adults too!).

Children love to dig- set aside an area for digging, to use those idle moments and hone skills!

Children love to dig- set aside an area for digging, to use those idle moments and hone skills!

5. Promote your Garden

So you’ve got the garden underway and you might be feeling pleased with what you’ve achieved. But don’t ‘rest on your laurels’ as the garden will need continuous promotion if you are to retain and increase interest and involvement by the school and wider community. The children are your best advocates – if they’ve enjoyed a session in the garden they’ll mention it at home and so inform and possibly engage parents. Other ideas to try:

  • write a monthly newsletter/ blog or/and contribute to regular School newsletters

  • publish recipes using garden vegetables growing in the garden

  • send home notes abotu what’s been happening in the School Garden and possibly advice for home gardening in a weekly folder

  • arrange an interview with a local newspaper, radio or TV station

  • take over (after asking of course!) a centrally located notice board and pin up student work and photos

  • have a garden party!

Hold a Garden Party to celebrate and promote your plot

Hold a Garden Party to celebrate and promote your plot

6. Broaden the base

Once the basic programmes are in place you can think about how the garden can contribute to the school more generally and also the wider community:

  • A School Gardening Club in which parents are encouraged to join in?

  • Linking with other schools and having visits to/from your garden with activities to encourage students getting to know each other?

  • Several schools sharing an allotment so helping to spread out the workload and resulting in a wider range of food being grown?

  • Use the garden to inspire and present art projects?

  • Poetry competitions based on the garden?

  • A garden reading session where children take out library books and read these in the garden?

  • A science fair focused on the garden?

And think about ways to get students and teachers to broaden their horizons – perhaps explore the ecosystem in the wider area and different types of habitat like riverside, woodland, coastal marshes etc. Teachers can also be encouraged to take part in environmental education training programmes  and so on, including those provided by Garden Organic.

Get your own composting project going

Get your own composting project going

7. Healthy practices

Finally it’s important to develop a set of healthy practices in the garden which will not only benefit it but also lead to important lessons that students and others can take into the future. For example:

  • Wildlife – welcome insects and other ‘critters’ into the garden and use organic or physical means to control them if they get out hand. Good methods include home-made anti-fungal sprays (using garlic and mineral oil), insecticidal soap made from liquid soap (not detergent) and water in a spray bottle,  ‘beer traps’ and ‘wildlife friendly’ pellets or other controls to reduce slugs and snails. And be prepared to tolerate some untidiness and ‘less than perfect’ veg!

  • Soil – use organic principles to develop a healthy soil; never dig it if it’s wet or frosted; find a good source of organic matter to add to the soil a couple of times a year (make your own compost, get donations of horse or farmyard manure); nurture the organisms in the soil by ensuring that it is never too dry – a mulch will help; once a good soil has been built up try not to dig it or turn it over (unless it’s very heavy of course)- just layering compost/manure and adding mulch (‘no till’ or ‘lasagna gardening’) is less work and is kinder to the insects and other animals working your soil; use cover crops to keep the soil protected over winter and possibly add fertiliser (‘green manure’); set up and actively manage a compost project in the garden ( in the UK possibly seek help from a ‘Master Composter to get you going) – or alternatively set up a worm (or vermi) composting project which is less intensive than traditional compost – making.

  • Plants – use organic plant foods such as ‘Fish, blood and bone’ or make your own ‘compost tea’ in bag of used compost mixed with water or using plants such as Comfrey or nettles steeped in water for a few weeks.

What's your favourite tipple? Beer traps are effective at controlling slugs and snails

What’s your favourite tipple? Beer traps are effective at controlling slugs and snails

Hopefully, these tips will help to set your School Garden on a fun, effective and healthy course.  In my final post I’ll try to point up some good ideas to enrich and expand your School Gardening programme further – a sort of ‘Master Class’ for school gardening.

Other posts in the series:

Growing Children 3: Seven tips for creating your dream School Garden

Growing Children 2: Seven Design tips for your School Garden

Growing Children 1: School Garden start up in Seven Steps

School Gardening – reconnecting children and Nature

Source & Further information:

How to grow a School Garden’ – Arden Bucklin-Spooner and Rachel Kathleen Pringle, Timber Press Books

School Gardening Club- ideas

Budding Gardeners- lots of advice and info

Garden planner tool

Planning your school garden

Food & Agriculture Organisation School Garden Planner

California School Garden Network Guide to School Gardening

School Gardening Wizard

School garden fundraising

Garden Organic support for schools

Old School Gardener

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