Something’s blooming in our school gardens and it looks a lot like education
There are different styles of learning and teaching which suit some children better than others. A classroom, however thoughtfully designed, is not the best learning environment for all children. The room may be “busy” with posters, decorations and mobiles, and noisy with staff talking, children chattering and chairs scraping. The emphasis is often on results, league table positions and fulfilling the requirements of the National Curriculum. It is asking a lot of children with hypersensitivity, sensory impairments or anxiety simply to cope with being in this kind of environment, let alone learning in it.
The classroom may be a hostile environment for children with poor concentration and problems in processing information. Such an environment may also hinder children with difficulties in understanding social cues and behaviour from interacting and communicating with others. Many professionals teaching and supporting these children are increasingly realising that there needs to be alternate provision for those who are not able to access education within a standard school setting. Many schools are now beginning to look outside the classroom and are considering the benefits, for everyone, of outdoor activities such as cultivating a school garden.
All aspects of the curriculum, and more besides, can be taught outside. Anyone, of any age, can benefit from being outdoors; for children with SEN, the natural environment provides a space in which learning can be delivered in a meaningful and purposeful way.
To follow are a few practical ideas for how gardening can be used to encourage children’s learning and enhance different areas of the curriculum.
Literacy: let children grow their initials in cress in a seed tray, making a written and photographic record as they go along. They could also keep the diary of a plant or written instructions for a particular gardening task. Stories can be created, for example around a mammoth pumpkin, and research on plants and how to grow them can be logged and discussed.
Numeracy: pupils can investigate and measure things like how much a crop weighs, how big a soil bed will be and the volume of soil needed to fill it? How much wood will they need to build a raised bed and how many seeds should be sown?
Science: biology, physics and chemistry are the basis of so many aspects of gardening. From investigating germination, seed dispersal and growing conditions, to soil pH, the water cycle and measuring rainfall, gardening can be one continuous science lesson.
Humanities: where does our food come from? When were potatoes first introduced, by whom and what was the effect on our diet? Children can explore such questions, and the close links between history and geography in gardening.
Creative arts: plants can be used as inspiration for all art forms, be it observational drawing, clay modelling, collage work, using fabric and dyes to make hangings, or ephemeral art created from twigs, leaves, flowers, wood or stone as demonstrated by artist Andy Goldsworthy. Wood, gourds and grasses can create areas of sound and gentle chimes in the garden. Musical instruments can also be used to create bird song and other garden sounds.
Food technology: cooking follows on naturally from growing fruit and vegetables, and can be used to help pupils understand nutrition and healthy eating.
Design technology: designing and making plant containers, ramps for wheelbarrows and pots that will rot are just some of the problem solving activities arising from genuine need in the garden.
PE: exercise and gardening go hand in hand, and activities like sowing seeds and potting on plants can be great for developing fine motor skills.
PHSE: there are ample opportunities to chat in a non-threatening way about issues and problems which may arise when working alongside a child. Social skills can be encouraged using gardening, sharing produce and mentoring others. Nurturing plants gives children the opportunity to care for something other than themselves, and to be aware that in order to thrive, plants, like people, need looking after.
Learning is about so much more than the curriculum. It is about developing the confidence and self-esteem of children and young people so they can demonstrate their strengths and abilities. Initially, it is important to provide tasks which are within their capabilities. Enable them to challenge their energy, not by disrupting the class, but by forking over a bed or digging up potatoes. Reduce anxiety and stress by going calmly for a walk around the garden, touching, smelling and tasting plants. Stand and watch birds coming to the feeder and encourage quiet concentration. Pupils can show others what they can do by mentoring a new member to the garden group. Sharing or selling produce they have grown can also improve their self-worth and enhance communication and social skills.
There are clearly some children for whom many of the activities mentioned above will be beyond their physical or cognitive ability, but being in the garden can also help these children in many ways. Those with profound needs are often provided with a sensory room to give them a relaxing or stimulating environment to be in. A garden can be created and used as a sensory area too, with the added bonus that this “room” is one that changes gently with the seasons.
Taking children outside to sit under a tree at different times of the year can foster a good sense of the different seasons and weather. If they are unable to look up at the sky through a tree, you can provide them with a mirror or lay them on a rug on the grass. Use plants distinctive for their sensory value in the garden, such as scented herbs and shrubs, soft or spiked leaved plants to stimulate touch, grasses for texture and sound, and fruit and vegetables for taste. Use varied surfaces on paths and beds for touch stimulation, choose colours carefully in planting and hard landscaping, and provide a clear pathway around the garden so that those able to move independently can do so without feeling lost. A well designed garden enables all children and young people to connect with nature, the seasons and their senses.
There are so many good reasons to take children, and particularly those with SEN, out of the classroom and into outdoor environments such as gardens. The benefits for children’s learning and development are manifold and the positive effects on wellbeing and self-esteem can make a huge difference for children who tend to struggle in more formal situations. What’s more, you do not need to be a gardener to get children into a garden and to help them learn and grow.
Becky Pinniger is a freelance trainer at Thrive, a charity using gardening to help change the lives of people with SEN and disabilities. She is the author of How to Garden and Grow: Gardening as Therapy for Children with SEND: