The Manifesto for Education Outside the Classroom promotes high-quality outdoor learning experiences to support cognitive skills and aid personal development – gardening fits the bill, says Dr Susan Johnson

Through hands-on gardening pupils can gain knowledge of plant science, wildlife, environmental management and the process of change. A wide range of national curriculun subjects can also be included. But to take up the objectives of the Manifesto for Education Outside the Classroom, schools will be challenged to find local sites and make time for active participation.

Finding a site for gardening
Available sites for gardening include school grounds, allotments, waste ground and parks. Pupils should be involved in gardening projects from their start and encouraged to discuss their own needs with those of neighbours and community users. Pupil and user questionnaires can determine what is liked or disliked about their site and what potential changes are preferred – collating the repsonses offers opprtunities to practise IT skills. Collaborative decision-making about construction and planting should involve thorough research including investigation of funding. Planting plans will underpin major changes to sites and phasing is advisable – this is not Ground Force !

What is already on site?
Before making plans, survey the site. A large-scale plan is useful. If yours is  a local authority school you may be able to access customised mapping from the authority. Otherwise schools can contact the Ordnance Survey ‘options’ services direct at www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk Make surveys of trees and other plants so that rare orchids aren’t cleared to make way for a wildflower meadow (it has happened!). Don’t forget that the site’s direction in relation to the sun and wind exposure will influence planting.

Funding
No long-term gardening project can survive without management approval and committed funds. Budget holders need to specify realistic outcomes and allow for unforeseen problems, such as the weather. An element of self-funding is possible if enterprise ventures are integral to the project as plant sales have the potential to raise money. Renegotiated grounds maintenance contracts may reduce costs although the work stil has to be done. Phasing over several years spreads the burden of fundraising and makes the overall plan more flexible and manageable. During their time at school, pupils can take part in a range of gardening projects and witness the long-term nature of environmental change and how careful planning avoids environmental damage.

Community involvement
School gardening can involve the wider community. For example, parents and disabled, elderly or blind groups can be invited to help. Involving more people makes available a wider range of skills. Community efforts also encourage press coverage and publicity which may aid fundraising. Integration into Local Biodiversity Action Plans (www.ukbap.org.uk) holds great promise and Eco-Schools (www.eco-schools.org) show how important school projects are to international environmental initiatives.

Finding support
Attending gardening CPD organised by various providers – the Royal Horticultural Society (www.rhs.org.uk), Science Learning Centres (www.sciencelearningcentres.org.uk), County Garden Trusts (www.gardenstrusts.org.uk) and visits to botanic gardens may stimulate ideas and enthusiasm. School gardening courses enable teachers to meet more experienced colleagues.

The Growing Schools campaign (www.teachernet.gov.uk/growingschools) is a useful resource for teachers and the gardening techniques described are applicable across the full school age range. It is the enthusiasm, commitment, planning and funding that will make the different to what can be achieved on a school site.

Whole-school policy
A whole-school approach raises the profile of horticulture and makes involvement relevant to everyone. Environmental awareness can be increased if school gardening is organic. From the health and safety point of view organic growing is essential – no noxious chemicals.

Effective teaching
Gardening projects have the potential to integrate science, history, RE, enterprise, PSHE, environmental education (Pilkington, 2005) and citizenship in gardening. The resource or facilities that school gardening will entail depend on what teachers want to teach out of doors. Bear in mind that practical science projects and the integration of gardening into vocational education could make hands-on horticulture an essential skill; learning by doing.

What kind of projects for what kind of teaching?

  • Climbing plants – designing trellises or frames
  • Compost area – designing and making bins, showing decay, recycling, wormery
  • Experimental plots – investigating life cycles, watering trials, sowing time, weed growth, pests
  • Flowering plants – studying growth, colour, pollination, life cycles
  • Fruit trees, bushes and strawberries – exploring biological control of pests
  • Herbs, Mediterranean plants, shrubs, vines and wildflowers – researching medicines, food, dyes, sensory work, economic uses
  • Insect garden – attracting butterflies, bees, moths (night-scented plants needed), hoverflies, lacewings
  • Ornithology – designing a bird garden with a hide and plenty of seeds and berries
  • Quiet/spiritual garden – meditating and exploring fragrance and colour
  • Vegetable plot – doing practical and enterprise work

Further information

  • Pilkington, M C (2005) Science in the Countryside: Lifelong Learning for Ecological Citizenship. Leicester: NIACE.
  • Dr Susan Johnson is working on the Plantscigardens EU project at the Institute of Education. Her other research interests are CPD and argumentation in science.
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