The Importance of a School Garden as a Community

Posted on: 05/11/2018
The Importance of School Gardens as a Community

The Importance of School Gardens as a Community

“Nature inspires creativity in a child by demanding visualisation and the full use of senses…In nature a child finds freedom, fantasy and privacy…” Richard Luv, ‘Last Child in the Woods’

My first memory of gardening as a child was accompanying my grandfather to his allotment in the North of England every weekend. I loved helping him out through the seasons with the tasks at hand and being able to proudly bring home the produce we had grown together. I loved the community spirit of the allotments and we often shared a cup of tea in one of the other members  shed in the harsher days of winter. I learnt so much over those years but wouldn’t appreciate what an important part of my life it was until I had children of my own.

At school, at that time, the most I ever learnt about nature was a woodland walk or growing cress in cotton wool.

School gardens have been on the increase in Ireland over the past few years and campaigns such as An Taisce ‘Green Schools’ are encouraging children to engage more with nature and the environment.

The Importance of School Gardens as a Community

Like a lot of people who participate  in school gardens, I first became involved as a parent. The school my children attended has wonderful grounds and a large organic garden with eight raised beds. Unfortunately,  it had become quite run down and there were insufficient parents willing to get involved to keep it up. As soon as I started to get to work in cleaning it up and putting a garden plan in place, the knowledge passed down from my grandfather to me came flooding back and I vowed that I was going to get it to work, and get all the school community involved.

Aileen O’ Dwyer, who runs the ‘School Gardens Ireland’ Facebook forum page, also became involved in school gardening through her children’s  school, “I began volunteering at Knockadea N.S., where my daughter now attends, 6 years ago. Initially it was meant to be a one-off gardening session but it turned into a weekly session because the children seemed to enjoy it so much. Ours is a small rural school where support from the community is very important so I have always been happy to help out.”

Benefits of School Gardening

The Importance of School Gardens as a CommunityIn a recent article in The Irish Times (1) Dr Sandra Austin, lecturer in social, environmental and scientific education at the Marino Institute of Education,  expresses the importance of children being able to connect with nature through having a school garden:

“I see school gardens as connective spaces that allow you to see a bigger picture. You can experience the beauty as a whole and then find interesting things like how plants smell or look, and you can open up pieces of fruit and see the seeds. Learning outdoors like that offers really important direct experience of nature rather than just reading about it in class.”

A lot of research has been conducted in the UK and US (2) on the benefits of gardening with children but very little in Ireland. According to Dr. Austin,  “What my research has found is that primary school teachers here value the inclusivity of school gardens – every child can benefit and achieve success in a way that they may not be able to do in the classroom. “

Caroline Jolley has been involved in St Brigids Community Garden in Stillorgan since 2009, when she set up  the school garden, it doubles up as a community space allowing people living in apartments to grow their own vegetables and to meet up with other people in the area,  “Parents  choose to enroll their children in our school partially due to the amenity of the garden .  Retired people are particularly welcome due to their knowledge.  Having a potting shed that doubles up as a tea room is invaluable.  The public are welcome to drop in at weekends and families regularly come in to look at the animals and wildlife.”

The garden is used within the curriculum of the school and she believes is of great benefit to the students “The school use the garden to solidify learning in the classroom. Our nature signs are designed with the primary curriculum in mind.  The children get to taste and see vegetables and fruit that wouldn’t normally be in supermarkets.  The garden also provides various habitats for wildlife.”

From my own experience, I have seen how gardening can be integrated into most subjects from Maths to Art. I have worked on various projects such as creating plant markers from stones to  helping the children to understand concepts of space and depth through planting seeds and designing the planting in each bed. The children also benefit from discovering new tastes and expanding on their food intake; growing their own food makes them much more adventurous in discovering new fruit and vegetables.

Aileen O’ Dwyer sees the benefits on a much broader scale as the children being able to connect with nature, “We have discovered so many benefits from gardening… The most immediate is that the children enjoy and are recharged by the break from the classroom and from the connection with nature. When we started out our goal was simply to grow something we could eat, so we grew red and also yellow cherry tomatoes in buckets… the pupils got such a thrill from going out and picking and tasting their own tomatoes which they had grown from seeds. “

The Importance of School Gardens as a CommunityThe school fundraised for a polytunnel so the children could benefit from the garden throughout the year, she has been very pleased with how the garden has evolved  and the support from the local community and the teachers, “ Our principal is very interested in and supportive of the benefits our garden can bring to the pupils and the school and she regularly incorporates science, maths, geography and history into our gardening projects. We regularly cook and eat some of our crops in school and include our harvests in our weekly school raffle. We have also found that working organically in the garden and in co-operation with nature can increase the children’s social skills, teamwork  capabilities and empathy with the environment .”

Setting up a School Garden

Involving children in gardening can start at a very small-scale with projects such as growing seedlings in classroom to having pots or containers outside. Projects such as ‘Growing the biggest sunflower’ can be started off in the school for the children to take home.

Funds are often an issue so establishing a preliminary budget with ideas on how to fundraise are the first thing to consider, as Alison reiterates start small, “… be realistic with your goals, if the space isn’t there for a polytunnel or outdoor beds then plan on growing in containers and window boxes etc. Have an outline prepared of what you would like to achieve, why you think it would benefit the children of your school, who would be involved in running it and maintaining it, the costs/time involved etc before you speak to the principal about it. Also it goes without saying that anyone involved who will be visiting the school to help with the garden will need to be Garda vetted in advance and in accordance with the school.”

The Importance of School Gardens as a CommunityGetting people to participate can be difficult, organising days to involve parents, other family members,  children and  teachers can be of great benefit and encourage ownership of the space by the local community.  Having a theme or a plan of action can make the day more appealing; make it a special day by organising a picnic or barbeque, arrange it for a seasonal event like planting seeds or harvesting.

School gardens have their limitations and issues, as Caroline has found, “You need to get an enthusiastic group on board who will tend to the garden every week.  Growing crops that will mature before June limits what you can grow.  Starting with potatoes and salads allow instant and delayed harvesting.  Someone will need to look after the garden in the summer months which is why going down the community route is best. Paddy Maddens book ‘The outdoor classroom’ is a valuable resource and gives ideas for every month of the school year.”

Funding can be an issue; most schools do not have a budget for what is considered to be ‘Extra Curricular’ activities. Local authority grants such as the Local Agenda 21 can provide beneficial funds for the set up and continued development of school gardens. Caroline Jolley recommends subscribing to the JB4grants for information on what other grants/funding is available.

In the school gardens I have worked in we have had great success in fundraising by selling plants, produce and seeds. Aileen has also found this to be beneficial in raising much needed funds to keep the garden flourishing, “Our garden is self-supporting as in we hold our own fundraisers and we save seeds from the garden to sell in packets and seed bombs at our local cottage market.”

The Importance of School Gardens as a CommunityThe garden at Knocknadea has also had an impact outside of the school, “The children bring home a lot of seeds to plant as well as seedlings and potato tubers to grow at home with their families and they are very proud to be able to show their parents what they have learned,with the result that since we began our school garden, many of the school families have now started their own home garden where they grow their own produce.”

School gardens are their own community; where parents, teachers and pupils can come to together and benefit from the joys that nature holds.  We are  all becoming more concerned with the effects of climate change, waste management and over consumption in our society and we have a golden opportunity to encourage caring about our environment, sustainability and integrate it into the  education of our children.

 “Numerous studies document the benefits to students from school grounds that are ecologically diverse and include free play area, habitat for wildlife, walking trails and gardens.”

Richard Louv

This article was written by Sara Plumier, the Community Gardens Ireland Secretary. Having trained in marketing and as a teacher, Sara has worked with a number of organisations in Europe and the US involving events, social inclusion and culture. As a passionate gardener she developed her love for nature from an early age; learning to cultivate her family’s extensive fruit and vegetable garden and helping out on her grandparents allotment. She currently works in a number of school gardens in County Wicklow/Kildare and is studying Social and Therapeutic Horticulture whilst training to be a Campaign Advisor for Uplift.ie

Further Information:

‘The Year Round Organic School Garden: https://store.irishseedsavers.ie/The_Year_Round_Organic_School_Garden_p/book-scho.htm

School Earthed Education Ireland Online links: http://www.schoolearthed.ie/online-resources.html

GIY Schools Information: http://www.schoolearthed.ie/online-resources.html

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