There are countless benefits of growing your own food, from the nutritional value of eating fresh vegetables instead of those bought in the supermarket, to the money you can save. But beyond these practical considerations, there are so many reasons for schools to think about incorporating food growing into their lesson plans.
A staggering one in three children in the final year of primary school are overweight or obese. And research shows that growing and preparing garden food at school increases children’s preferences for eating healthy fruit and vegetables. So the very act of getting children out into the garden and connected with carrots, pumpkins and runner beans increases the likelihood of them actually enjoying them to eat.
Over the past decade, environmental charity Trees for Cities has delivered more than 100 Edible Playground food growing spaces to the schools that really need them – urban schools with high pupil premiums that don’t have much access to the outdoors. We have learned a lot in that time about what the spaces bring to the school communities, what practices work best, and what can be done to ensure sustainability over time. Regular surveys with partner schools, coupled with retrospective conversations with headteachers have shone plenty of light on this.
Impact on the school community
Our surveys have shown the programme really does help teachers to teach and children to learn, with 91% of teachers surveyed saying their Edible Playground had a moderate to significant impact on pupils’ real life and practical learning opportunities.
Tracey Langridge, headteacher of Rockmount Primary School, told us in a recent conversation that: “One thing we noticed was the impact that spending more time in the garden had on our more challenging children. Timetabling them an extra slot in the garden and giving them time out with nature really had a massive impact on behaviour and making them calmer”.
Similar feedback came from Paul Jackson, headteacher at Manorfield Primary School: “The school was having low SATs results and poor behaviour and the Edible Playground gave us a focal point for overall school improvement. It had a huge impact on the children’s level of enthusiasm”.
Mental health, particularly among children, has been a hot topic recently, with more research being conducted into the extent of the challenge. With 86% of the teachers surveyed telling us their Edible Playground has had a moderate to significant positive effect on pupils’ moods, self-esteem and mental health, the benefits of outdoor classrooms cannot be overlooked.
These findings should perhaps be unsurprising, with the Scottish government stating that: “Being outdoors can be a more relaxing learning experience for many learners”. In nature, outside the constraints of the classroom, children can take wonder in the small things: watching a plant turn from seed to fruit, understanding how nurturing something helps it grow healthy and strong, appreciating that sometimes there will be failures but with persistence and care you will succeed.
But what about the children’s responses? Their feedback is crucial for assessing the success of a school learning project. From what we’ve heard, it’s only been positive. Here’s some of the feedback:
“I love spending time in the Edible Playground, especially when I’m stressed, as it’s the most tranquil place”. Hebe, Year 5 pupil, Rockmount Primary School.
“I like eating healthily because having a good diet helps me concentrate in lessons. If I just ate fatty or sugary things, I would be distracted from my work. I grow food at home and at school, which is very nice and relaxing”. Miranda, Year 5 pupil, Rockmount Primary School.
“The fresh air wakes me up!” Ahsanur, Year 5 pupil, Manorfield Primary School.
Best practice and sustainability
So what can schools do to ensure the success of a food growing project? By nature, growing vegetables requires space and care throughout the year. Schools will struggle if they are not fully committed and don’t timetable regular slots in the garden for each class. The project should be included in the teaching day instead of just at playtimes or after school as a gardening club. When time in the garden isn’t timetabled, it becomes easy to leave garden chores for another day, running the risk of crops turning to seed and spoiling. Little and often is best, both for the garden itself, and for the benefits the children will get from it.
Trees for Cities have released some resources to help teachers incorporate gardening into the curriculum. They are comprehensive and free and really help with offering guidance into using gardens as outdoor teaching assets. Take a look at them here.
It also helps for schools to choose an outdoor learning champion – somebody who holds responsibility for the garden. Roles and responsibilities should be written into job descriptions to ensure they outlive staff changes. Some schools have gone a step further and developed outdoor leads from each year group. There is even scope to include the SLT, governors, parents and certain children as well. It’s a simple case of the more people who shoulder responsibility, the more likely the project will work.
If you are interested in hearing more about the Edible Playgrounds programme, get in touch with Trees for Cities via the links below.
About the Author
Mike Edmondstone is the Schools Communications Officer for the Edible Playgrounds programme from charity Trees for Cities. Based in London’s Kennington Park, he promotes Edible Playgrounds to schools and coordinates enquiries at a national, regional and local level.
The Edible Playgrounds programme transforms school grounds into vibrant outdoor teaching gardens that inspire learning and get children excited about growing and eating healthy food. It is now celebrating its 10th year, having completed more than 100 projects in primary and secondary schools across the country.