'I want to grow a banana tree!'
Connecting with nature, growing food and low impact living are essential skills for children to learn as they grow into the adults who will inherit our planet. When we began Transition Dartmouth Park, one of our first ports of call was our local primary school, where several of us have children. We wanted to work with the school, not only to teach children about low energy living, but also because it is a key community hub and social space, and we see it as crucial to building Transition as a community practice.
A couple of us were already on the PTA and prior to our initiating meeting we went to meet both the head teacher and the chair of the PTA, to explain Transition and ask how we could work with the school. The head agreed to put a governor on our core group but wasn't overwhelmingly enthusiastic about us doing activities with the children, citing the school's new solar panels and recycling policy as evidence they were doing all they could for the environment, and the full curriculum as a barrier. He also didn't exactly jump at my offer to build a cob oven in the school playground!
But our apple and pear pressing stand at parent's day last October was a great hit with both children and parents, as was our seed bomb making stall at the school jumble sale. We followed with an assembly on waste - featuring 'Man Can', a man made out of recycled objects by children in 'Transition Kids (a project run by Transition Belsize and Hampstead), and the school finally gave us the go ahead to start an after-school gardening club. We also found a great ally in the PTA chair, who helped us to promote the club to parents and to match fund with the school for plants, seeds and tools. The head then got on board too, and proudly announced the club at grandparent's day - attended by around 100 people. A letter was sent home to all children and over 40 of them applied for 15 spaces!
After a few practical preparation meetings with some garden experts, we had our first gardening Club meeting in mid-April with ten children from Years 1 to 5. We dodged showers to dig up strawberries, mix in new compost and plant chitted potatoes.
From the start, the children loved the digging, the fresh air after school and the idea of having their very own produce. We seemed to do very well for rainy days in April, May and June so we also managed some indoor activities such as potting, making May baskets and word games based around gardening vocabulary! At the end of the summer term, every child took home a small bag of potatoes, spinach and strawberries. When we started back in September, we were able to give some carrots and potatoes to the school Cookery Club which our gardeners were very proud of.
We have just had our last meeting for the autumn and I asked the children what thay had learnt from the club. Firstly, I asked them what their favourite thing had been. I had several answers ranging from the succinct "It was nice", to the popular opinion that it was great to eat food that you'd grown yourself, some loved planting seeds and bulbs, they all enjoyed digging up potatoes "like a treasure hunt" and the carrots too, "you never know how long they will be!" Some had also enjoyed the indoor drawing and art we'd done.
My next question was what they hadn't enjoyed. Thankfully, many said that they'd liked everything but generally the rain and the smell of compost were not very popular!
I asked what else they would have liked to have done and responses included planting a rose tree, planting a banana tree, growing an apple and having less rain. Next spring we have voted to plant a plum tree so that may solve one of those wishes.
Finally, I asked if they had learnt anything about gardening that they didn't know before. Many of them hadn't realised how potatoes grew in clumps, they had learnt how to plant bulbs the right way up, they had some idea of what to plant when and what would grow in our plot. I was especially pleased to hear that they hadn't realised what fun gardening club would be. Success!!
We had a real variety of children from all backgrounds, some with gardens, some without, with varying experiences of gardening but I was delighted to see such enthusiasm for everything we did. As with many school projects, we started off with a bigger band of willing helpers and parents than we ended with but the word has spread about the club and we hope to welcome a few more new members from our long waiting list in the spring tem accompanied by some fresh and eager parents.
This spring one of our local secondary schools heard about the primary school club and got in touch to ask us for a gardening club there. We haven't yet had the capacity to be very hands on, but so far we have given them compost and some advice on container growing and hope to do more next year. We hope this signals a first step to inspiring parents in the area with children at other local schools to initiate activities at those.
Written jointly with Debbie West, coordinator of Transition Dartmouth Park's school gardening club.
Images: 1. Sowing seeds; 2. Getting our hands dirty; 3. Eleanor strawberry-picking - all photos taken by Catharine Wells.