Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Future gardeners

March was 'find out about Gardens Trusts and education' month.  What better place to start than the South West Area Education Conference where two speakers shared their enthusiasm for outdoor education.

Sue Palmer is the head of Farley Nursery in Hampshire.http://www.farleynurseryschool.com/  She provides daycare for children from six months to school-age.  Carla Thomas-Buffin runs an outdoor education programme at Sir Harold Hilliers' Garden for Hampshire's schools.http://www3.hants.gov.uk/hilliergardens/hilliers-keystages.htm  Both women are equally passionate about the need for children to be outside.

Sue asked us to recall our earliest happy childhood memory. It wasn't surprising to discover that Gardens Trust members happy memories involved being outside.  As Sue told us, we are at our happiest outside because that is where we are programmed to be. Sadly, many people in Britain today are no longer aware of this.

Sue's answer to the problem is to start young.  At her nursery even the babies spend as much time outside as possible.  They sleep in big Silver Cross prams while the older children play around them. Farley Nursery's children are so healthy and allergy-free that health-visitors in Salisbury recommend it to local families.

Without the restrictions of the curriculum, the amount of time Sue's children can spend outside is unlimited.  It becomes more difficult when they start school.  That is why education programmes like the one run by Sir Harold Hilliers' Garden are so valuable.

Carla is confident that, as a result of outdoor education schemes, the worrying gap in children's life experience is now being filled.  Her concern is for the generation in the middle, some of whom are young teachers.

Cairn of decorated pebbles

Emma Scholfield, the AGT's Education and Schools Co-ordinator, is often contacted by teachers who would like to provide their children with an experience of nature but don't know where to start.  She recently helped the Headmaster of a small village school in Kirkby on Bain and took me along to see the progress he's making.

All it took was a rough plan from Emma; financial help from the diocese and Lincolnshire Gardens Trust;  'hands-on' help from parents and then the garden was on its way.  By the time I visited, a glass-fronted composter and a bug-hotel were already in operation and newly built raised beds were ready for planting.  I loved the colourful cairn of decorated pebbles in the garden's centre; a pebble placed by each member of the school and to be added to by every newcomer for the rest of the school's life.

Next on the list was Gosberton House School; a school that caters for children who would struggle in mainstream education.  The large grounds are divided into smaller areas, each with their own character and purpose, but sufficiently enclosed that the children who use them feel safe.  It was a privilege to be shown around by two pupils who were so obviously benefiting from the outdoor learning activities provided by the school's dedicated staff. But it was during my visit to to Emma's husband's school (where she works part-time) that I experienced the effect that outdoor learning can have on an entire school.

I know what children sound like when they're sent outside after being inside for too long. It's a bit like shaking up a bottle of lemonade and then taking the lid off. The atmosphere at Boston West Primary was quite different. By the end of my afternoon there, the whole school was outside.  Yes, the children were busy and active but there was a wonderful sense of calm and happy contentment.  I was amazed and delighted to see children making things with piles of sticks.  No one was telling them to be careful.  There was no need.  These were children comfortable with being outside because it's what they do regularly.  It was a joy to see.

Emma has put an enormous amount of energy into developing children's activities at her school and has masses of ideas to share.  Do get in touch with her.

Incidentally, when I last spoke to Emma, a school and an old-people's home had contacted her to ask for help.  Both organisations had found her details in the AGT Yearbook.  It works.  Make sure you distribute copies far and wide.

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