The Secrets of the School Garden

By Yvonne Pemberton

We are fortunate to have a large, well-maintained and really interesting school garden.  In these times of lockdown, bubbles and masks, it has been a place of freedom and exploration. We have watched winter turn to spring and spent more time than ever there this term.

The chance to run, climb, swing, plant, watch and monitor growth has been a welcome and much-needed break from the classroom setting. The school garden, already a pretty, colourful and inspiring place to visit became an exciting area of exploration linking learning objectives in Mathematics, IPC, PHSE and English seamlessly.

Students were keen to spend as much time as possible in the garden, using the small wooden shelters as pretend store fronts, ‘selling’ all sorts of nettle, rock and twig keepsakes, using the large tree as a challenge to build structures within and around, aiming to reach the highest branches and of course acorn hunts and twig sword fights were regular highlights.

The challenge for my teaching in the garden was to make it purposeful, engaging, fun and of course to ensure learning objectives were being met along the way. The structure of the lesson had to build in some time to run and play, to listen, to observe and often a practical, verbal or written task too. We soon fell into a pattern of a dedicated play time, a group or paired work session, re-grouping for observations or discussion, more student led enquiry or investigation and finally we came together to discuss findings.  Every session ended with a game students enjoyed leading like ‘Wink Murder’, ‘Splat’, ‘Can I come to the party?’ or a grammar version of ‘Duck, Duck Goose’!

As the garden is so well resourced, with everything exactly where you would expect it, planning and resourcing lessons is easy.  In one lesson students were tasked with a Maths investigation alternating with two practical IPC activities. The maths objective to be able to recognise parallel, perpendicular and bisecting lines was an easy task for many – simply find them in the garden. When some students could not readily spot them, they made their own representations with twigs!

Meanwhile another group were in the greenhouse planting beans in individual pots with Mr Jonas, our very own Hort ‘garden helper’. They could explain the importance of WAWS (water, air, warmth and sunlight) when we re-grouped.  The other student group was busy clearing, weeding and digging in a planting bed in which to plant corn seeds. The planting took some time as there were rooting acorns, worms, snail shells and all manner of soil treasure to examine first.

In another lesson sketching signs of life was the challenge, especially as there was still snow on the ground, but students knew to look up to the tree buds or to clear the snow underfoot to discover the wild garlic shoots and smells! All that was needed in terms of resources were clipboards, art books and sketching pencils. We used our class iPad to take photographs.  Students soon got into the habit of checking if anything was needed for their garden lesson and we could often be seen heading outside with plastic tubs of books and stationery.

The atmosphere of lessons in the garden was one of alternate calm, excitement and discovery. Valuable unplanned lessons were learnt along the way. The class planting bed was tampered with on one occasion and the 4YP planters quickly felt the frustration of their work not being valued and the disappointment at having to start over, but perhaps the most valuable lesson was that they could appreciate the work of others in the garden and were mindful to respect it rather than to trample on a shoot or kick up a flowerbed planted by someone else.

An investigation into different leaf types found in the garden led into our IPC work on the use of sorting keys to identify leaves quickly from colour, shape, and size. We were lucky enough to have a bank of garden-specific activities to draw from, collated over the years by Mrs Vogel-Sirin, one of which allowed us to monitor and record the growth of the same buds from the same branch on a week-by-week basis. Our observations inspired poems on the theme of Spring for World Poetry day.

The garden sets students free to discover things at their own pace, it allows for a quiet wander on one’s own or a loud frantic hunt with friends.  It enables students to show each other their discoveries independent of adult guidance, in fact students only consulted the adults for reassurance of a plant feature or stage of development as they were usually already thinking along the right lines, building upon their theoretical lessons in class.

One very simple lesson involved us taking a range of metre rules, measuring tapes and rulers into the garden with pairs tasked with finding living things less than 10mm, over 1 metre or somewhere in between the two.  Often the simplest ideas allow for valuable practical activities.

Our class Easter clue hunt did lead to a chocolate bunny for all, but the search in the garden was for hidden clues on all aspects of their term’s learning. Questions on adverbs, triangle types, characteristics of living things and punctuation could be seen nestling in the bushes, hanging from the trees and peeping behind the array of spring flowers.

Valuable teamwork lessons were in session, the teams of 4 had to answer the questions verbally but they could split into two pairs, one to answer whilst the other pair searched for the next clue.  Each team had to re-hide the clue carefully, for every clue found and answered correctly led to valuable points towards the chocolate bunnies.  A forty-five-minute re-cap of our term’s learning involving every student, was made possible by the large open space and smaller nooks and crannies, flowerbeds, trees, shelters and furniture present in this wonderful garden of ours!

Looking ahead, we can count on the garden to allow us to explore maths objectives in area and perimeter and negative and positive numbers linked to the garden thermometers in place. We look forward to harvesting our corn once it grows and next for 4YP is a lesson to design a bed to plant our developing bean shoots in and then planting our beans with supporting canes; which of course can be found in neat stacks ready to use in the garden shed.

The garden really is a joy to teach in.  It has been our secret weapon against the confines of bubbles, a place for independent enquiry and a well-resourced, colourful and peaceful space to learn in.

Our thanks to Mrs Gitte Vogel-Sirin who continues to arrange for the birds to be fed, the beds to be assigned and cleared, the contents of the sheds and greenhouses to be maintained and organised and most recently even arranged for colourful Easter eggs to ‘bloom’ from the trees!

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