While it may seem that spring happened at Christmas this year and winter has just hit us, this is traditionally the perfect time to turn the outdoors into a classroom focusing the energies of younger students on studying insects and planting vegetables that could end up on their plates.Gardening has been a staple of British education since the Victorian era when it was incorporated into nature study classes. It is, after all, a microcosm of farming, the foundation of society as we know it, with people remaining in one place to produce food, rather than simply gathering what they found as they wandered hither and thither.

Now, of course, there are children who are so divorced from the source of their food, they have no idea where it comes from. A British Nutrition Foundation study in 2017, found that of the 5,000 surveyed, 10% of 8 to 11 year olds believed that pasta came from animals and 29% of 5 to 7 years olds thought that cheese was a plant.As US environmentalist David Orr says, “To a great extent we are a displaced people for whom our immediate places are no longer sources of food, water, livelihood, energy, materials, friends, recreation or sacred inspiration.”

Though Spain is less addicted to fast food than most industrialised countries, consumption rose by 5.6% in 2017 and promises to maintain its upward trajectory thanks to an increasing number of fast food chains taking over the cities.In an increasingly virtual world, children feel a real sense of wonder when the small seed they have planted in the ground ends up as a stick of celery or a carrot. Instead of the disconnect involved in turning on a screen, they feel empowered by their ability to make something materialise – to the point where they may even be persuaded to eat it!

“It is wonderful for connecting children to nature in a world full of technology,” says Adele Stanford, head of King’s College, Latvia. “But more than that, it gives children a reason to use the English language and for our second language learners this is so important. With traditional subjects, they don’t always speak. But show them caterpillars turning into a chrysalis or a fascinating insect on a leaf in the forest and they really want to communicate their observations.”

These early experiences also prepare students for more advanced biology and chemistry classes later as, without even realizing it, they will have already carried out a scientific experiment that requires them to monitor its progress. There is little in the way of immediate gratification in the garden!

King’s primary teacher Joanne Weale did an experiment with her class of four and five year olds to see how flowers drink water. “The experiment was with celery and white carnations,” she explains. “We put blue, red and yellow food dye in separate buckets of water. We then put yellow flowers in the different dyes – and the blue dye turned the yellow flowers green and the red dye turned them orange. It was amazing!”The study of insect life also introduces children to ecological issues such as the Earth’s ecosystems as insects pollinate crops, feed on dead plants and improve the health of the soil.

“Our children have first hand knowledge about how bugs help the environment,” says Adele. “They have studied worms in their wormeries and learned all about how essential even the smallest insect is.”Last but not least, maths can actually come to life in the garden, with seeds counted and the depth of soil measured, bringing this abstract subject quite literally down to earth.

“I love the topic of growth,” says Joanne. “It’s magical and the children are always fascinated. It’s ongoing now until the end of the year. In the new school year, we look at the compost with the new children.”

A professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, J. Michael Murphy, had this to say about gardening after studying the Edible Schoolyard program in Berkeley, California for two years: “When middle school students in large urban communities are given the opportunity to learn about ecology in a real-world context, they are more enthusiastic about attending school, make better grades, eat healthier food due to wiser food choices, and become more knowledgeable about natural processes.”

Heather Galloway

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