Apr 29, 2019
School gardening and environmental education can reduce ‘eco-anxiety’ and increase physical and mental well-being. In addition, they can give students a range of life-skills that may be more useful than many knowledge-based topics covered by the National Curriculum. This Gardening Week, Meryl Batchelder suggests that all schools should be providing opportunities for pupils to connect with nature.
Spring has arrived in my school garden. Inside our poly tunnel, over the past few months, pupils have: filled the raised beds with compost, planted neat rows of tiny seeds, thinned out the seedlings, weeded, repeatedly watered and have now nurtured our first crop.
Just before the Easter holidays they were able to harvest a ping-pong radish – a round, white ball of crunchy freshness that tingles on the tongue. The kids gathered around this small vegetable, their eyes wide in awe. One lucky student was able to pull the leaves and the radish popped out of the ground, compost still clinging to the sides and root. As they gazed at this simple little radish in near silence one student piped up “It’s magic Miss”. In fact, it’s not actually any form of mystery or illusion, it’s simply that pupils are disconnected from the outside world and knowledge of where their food comes from.
How close – or far from – nature are we?
To understand how far removed young people are from nature you can give them pictures, or even better, leaf and bud samples of around 10 common trees such as oak, ash, beech, birch, cherry, maple or hazel. Congratulate them if they can name five. Many students won’t be able to identify more than one or two. Ask them why trees are important to humans in order to prompt some discussion. You could also talk about the plethora of nets that are currently being used to stop birds nesting near building sites – it is likely that most pupils will have seen these nets being used in the local area. Some families never discuss the natural world and we should not assume that pupils will automatically develop a respect for the environment.
My husband will vouch for me when I say ‘I’m not green-fingered’ but I know the basics and jumped in with both wellies when my head teacher asked the staff if they wanted to do a project with pupils on Friday afternoons. We had an overgrown and unloved wildlife garden and I thought we could tidy it up a bit. Four years later we have gained awards, cooked our own produce in the school kitchens, worked with the community, won garden design competitions and developed a sensory garden in our local town with support from the RHS. But it’s still that little radish which is symbolic of the work I am most proud of.
Benefiting student health and well-being
School gardening has been demonstrated to help student health and well-being1. Even just getting outside in the sunshine produces vitamin D which some pupils in northern latitudes may lack. Many GPs now prescribe gardening instead of anti-depressants. There is even some evidence that getting your hands covered in soil exposes you to microbes that improve mental health and have a natural anti-depressant effect2.
There is mounting discussion that the government needs to increase substantially the amount of environmental education in English schools. A recent study by a team at Kings College3 identified the lack of environmental substance in the science and geography programmes of study outlined in the English National Curriculum for 11 to 14 year olds. It is now up to individual schools and subject leaders to decide how, when and if, environmental education should be taught. With mounting evidence that the way many humans live on Earth is unsustainable we must ensure that future generations are able to participate in debates and make informed choices concerning environmental risks and challenges.
A right to first-hand experiences in nature
The National Association for Environmental Education (naee.org.uk) believe that young people have a right to first-hand educational experiences in their local environment, because these are critical in helping people understand the importance of the biosphere to all life on the planet, as well as being a source of wellbeing and fulfilment, and a motivation towards sustainable living.
Linking to the Sustainable Development Goals
Indeed, gardening links exceptionally well to the sustainable development goals (SDGs). I asked my pupils to make the links on a rather cold winter’s day when we had done our chores outside. They managed to match just about every SDG to an aspect of cultivating their own food, for example:
- SDG1 No Poverty – if you grow your own food you don’t have to buy it.
- SDG2 Zero Hunger – sharing produce means no one needs to be without food.
- SDG3 Good Health and Well-Being – fresh fruit and vegetable contain essential vitamins and minerals and gardening is also good for physical and mental health.
- SDG4 Quality Education – everyone should be taught gardening to develop useful skills.
- SDG 5 Gender Equality – gardening brings people together, it doesn’t matter who pulls up the weed.
- SDG 6 Clean Water – by saving rainwater for our garden we are reducing use of processed drinking water.
- SDG 7 Clean Energy – by growing our own produce we reduce air-miles for food transport such as importing green beans from Kenya.
- SDG 8 Decent Work – as long as there are people then there will be work for them growing food.
- SDG 9 Infrastructure – by eating food produced locally transport is reduced.
- SDG 10 Reduced Inequalities – everyone should have the right and space to grown their own food.
- SDG 11 Sustainable cities – any town planning should provide space for community gardens.
- SDG12 Responsible Consumption – growing our own means there is less plastic packaging and less food waste.
- SDG 13 Climate Action – plants take up carbon dioxide through photosynthesis.
- SDG 14 Life below Water – by growing organically we reduce pesticide use and protect aquatic animals.
- SDG 15 Life on Land – plants provide pollinating insects with food and increase biodiversity.
- SDG 16 and SDG 17 – we ran out of time but suggestions gratefully received!
In light of the recent BBC programme ‘Climate Change the Facts’ and some of the dire warnings by renowned scientists about the impending climate catastrophe it seems propitious to start investing in our young people and to give them skills that might be useful in the future. Growing vegetables was of paramount importance during both World Wars when people were forced by shortages in food supplies to produce their own. Obviously we hope that climate breakdown does not cause serious issues in the food supply but there are plenty of reasons for teaching students the skills they need; gardening is not complex and a little experience goes a long way.
How do you link gardening to your subject curriculum?
In some schools, pupils rarely go outside other than on to the playground or yard. They don’t know how to handle delicately seedlings or the nurture required to grow a plant to the point at which it bears fruit. There are obvious links between gardening to the science curriculum but you can also use working in the garden as a focus for language, literacy, maths, geography, history, PSHE and food technology. Gardening can also be used to encourage students to feel like global citizens; from studying plants grown and eaten in the world to thinking about air miles and how we can achieve human food security for the 7.7 billion residents of Earth. Even if you don’t have space for an allotment or poly tunnel it is simple to collect some old containers or sow a patch of meadow seeds to attract bees and butterflies, a local garden society may be able to help with advice or basic supplies.
Not all plain sailing…
Whilst wistfully looking over our school allotment during a working visit to our school an Ofsted Inspector commented, “It is a picture of bucolic charm”. However running a school garden is not always peaceful or easy. Over the past years I have had: occasional incidences of poor behaviour, a couple of minor injuries, quite a incidences of few nettle-stings, a vandalised poly tunnel, a lack of equipment and some plants that just refused to grow. Looking after 31 pupils on your own outside can be challenging so you could ask for help from parents. If you are gardening or taking pupils out on a field trip then you will also need to complete a risk assessment. It’s also a bit like the responsibility of having a school pet, unless you have a willing caretaker, you may need to pop into school to do some watering in the holidays.
You don’t need a degree in horticulture to start – just do a little bit of research on the RHS Schools website (schoolgardening.rhs.org.uk) or seek advice from the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom (www.lotc.org.uk). If you don’t want to commit to trying to grow something then take pupils for a walk in the woods or down to the coast. The NAEE recently suggested replacing the word ‘classroom’ with the term ‘learning contexts’ in the Ofsted Quality of Education judgement for schools. We should never assume that learning must be limited to the confines of the school walls.
Let the magic happen!
I can assure you that I love my school garden even more than I love spending time in my classroom and have never regretted taking those first steps with my wellies on. I might be nurturing plants but I'm also nurturing green-fingered, worm-finding, weed-pulling, bug-hotel building, beetroot-eating, nature-loving, biodiversity-encouraging, air-mile reducing, team-working, water-saving, joyfully-happy kids. Our humble radish is testimony to that fact that if you just get children outside and plant a few seeds then magic can still happen.
1. A systematic review of the health and well-being impacts of school gardening: synthesis of quantitative and qualitative evidence.
2. Antidepressant Microbes In Soil: How Dirt Makes You Happy
3. Understanding Environmental Education in Secondary Schools