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School kitchen garden and beyond

Students and teachers across New South Wales are reaping the benefits of kitchen gardens, writes Jakki Trenbath.

Enthusiasm for kitchen gardens in schools has swept across Australia over the past decade, springing up as tiny pocket-sized patches and vertical gardens in the inner city to expansive plots in country areas.Nobody knows what proportion of schools have a kitchen garden, but anecdotal evidence at least in New South Wales suggests about 50 per cent of primary schools now have them.

They have been built for many different purposes and with funding from a wide range of sources – state and local government; the federally-funded Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program; and grants from businesses such as Bunnings Warehouse and the Teachers Mutual Bank – as well as funding coming from school sources

The NSW Environmental Trust runs a grant program called Food Gardens in Schools and recently awarded $180,000 to 52 schools. The list of successful projects shows how the focus of school kitchen gardens varies enormously. It also shows the vast amount of energy and creativity from teachers and school communities across the state.

A common objective for kitchen gardens is to use them to promote healthy eating. For instance, the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program has helped build garden and kitchen infrastructure in 482 schools across Australia. The focus of the program has been to enable primary school students in Year 3 to Year 6 to learn how to grow, harvest, prepare and share seasonal fresh food in the belief that this approach will positively influence children’s food choices. This is part of an Australian Government focus on encouraging healthier food choices for children which may then contribute to a reduction in the prevalence of childhood weight related health issues and obesity in the future.

Another objective is for the garden to be a vehicle to teach children about a broad range of sustainability issues, and other popular objectives cover the benefits of ‘growing your own food’ for low income families or to allow special needs students to enjoy outdoor activities and sensory stimulation. There are also some unique projects that address a particular interest or local issue. Bonnyrigg High School in Western Sydney received a grant to start a medieval food garden as part of the history curriculum. Broken Hill Public School in far western NSW used its garden to highlight the importance of how fresh vegetables in the diet can reduce the absorption of lead into the body (as children in the area have historically had high lead levels due to the mining activities around the town).

Many schools in multicultural areas have used their kitchen garden programs to help bring together diverse communities with a common love of growing food, such as Hebersham Public School in Western Sydney which has many students of Pacific and Maori backgrounds. Grafton High School in northern NSW used its garden to provide herbs for the Home Economics Department, and has grown pumpkins to produce ‘Portuguese pumpkin jam’ to sell. This range of purposes shows the amazing flexibility of school gardens to respond to the individual schools’ needs and their particular school community.

But why have school gardens taken off so comprehensively across Australia? Their greatest strength is that many parts of the curriculum can be taught in an active and engaging way that appeals to all students’ learning styles. In 2011, the NSW Department of Education (DEC) commissioned a Kitchen Garden Pilot Program which involved nine public schools across the Sydney region. The schools were given a grant to establish herb and vegetable gardens and kitchen facilities, and to provide staff professional development to all interested teachers. The evaluation of this program confirmed what many schools have discovered – kitchen gardens programs are a highly-engaging context for learning and student learning outcomes can be achieved by integrating these programs into classroom programs and school curriculum.

Teachers are realising that there is endless scope for what they can do to take student learning outside into the garden.  Gardening can be used for numeracy skills  including:  measurement, areas and volumes, data gathering and presentation and for literacy  labelling plants,  recording and describing plant development researching, creating written and multi-modal texts, science and technology (growth and reproduction, testing soil pH as well as designing, planning and constructing the garden). Even creative arts can be effectively done in the garden – many schools install beautiful outdoor art works to decorate the garden area.

Getting kids into the garden benefits their overall learning and engagement. The key to this is how kitchen garden programs appeal to kinaesthetic learning styles, where the learning comes through physical activity and ‘doing’. The research also cites examples where students engaged in the kitchen garden activity demonstrate improvements in other areas of school learning and behaviour. All the teachers involved in the NSW DEC program either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that the program had been effective in engaging students.  When students were asked what they liked or did not like about the kitchen garden pilot program, the overwhelming majority indicated that the garden made them “feel good.”  Students commonly referred to the garden as a peaceful and calm place, a place where it was “good to learn”, and a place where you could feel “excited, happy and have fun.”

A number of Principals in the NSW DEC pilot program commented that time in the garden put students with learning difficulties and behaviour problems in a calmer and more focussed frame of mind. They found that improved engagement led to improved behaviour in the classroom.

Leonie McNamara is a community educator and parent of three children living in Dulwich Hill, in Sydney’s Inner West, and a fervent advocate of the benefits of kitchen gardens in schools. When her first child started school she became involved in Wilkins Green, a school and community garden project in Marrickville that Petersham TAFE Outreach had started on the school grounds. With her own children at the preschool and primary school she was in a unique position to extend and integrate the project into the school system. Having explored the social, physical and mental health benefits of community gardens programs for adults, Leonie saw the potential individual, community and environmental value of integrating the program into schools.

When the family changed schools a couple of years later, to Dulwich Hill Public School, she was given the opportunity to work with the assistant principal and Marrickville Council Environmental Educators network to create a series of lessons that could be used as a model for other schools.

Backed with the support of the Principal, staff and community, the program was so successful that she was asked to deliver a TAFE certificate course, back at Wilkins Green to teach other community members, parents and teachers how to best implement it.

Dulwich Hill Public School is now in its fourth year of garden lessons. It now has three trained garden teachers who deliver classes across four terms in the vegetable garden, the indigenous garden and frog pond and the Goanna Trail that links the two. Funding comes from local business partners, including a local coffee shop and a real estate agent, the P&C and a garden levy of $5 per child per year (as part of the parent voluntary contribution).

The TAFE course culminated in a new program, Growing School Communities, funded by Marrickville Council Community Fund, which will see the trained facilitators deliver the program at six other government and Catholic primary schools in Sydney’s Inner West.

Leonie’s program helps teachers not to be limited to using the kitchen garden for teaching, but to use the whole of the school’s grounds. “The overall aim is for children to experience the connections between people, plants, animals and insects and how we all rely on the same basic needs – air, food, water and shelter in a shared space,” Leonie says. “Understanding this web of life and natural cycles allows children to identify their place in the world.

“A kitchen garden program’s strength lies in its ability to allow learning across curriculum to be delivered in the garden. Even reluctant students can usually find a way in – just being outside, hands on learning, using all their senses, bug hunting, digging, wheelbarrowing – some might be inspired to draw or paint or make a collage or sculpture.

“But that is not where it ends. In all the schools where I am helping set up kitchen gardens, I see benefits rippling out across the whole school and into the broader community. The kitchen gardens have brought many parents in and helped them become partners in the teaching program. It helps them appreciate that we are all responsible for educating our children, our neighbours’ children and those on the next street, it’s not just one person’s responsibility.”

Leonie’s latest program has the potential to take the traditional school garden program to a new level. It incorporates the new national cross-curriculum priorities of indigenous issues and sustainability and uses the entire school grounds, not just the kitchen garden, over a series of seven lessons for all the primary school stages.

“The lesson plans are designed to be used in any outdoor space,” Leonie says. “We don’t just do planting and watering of the plants. We only plant things one lesson out of the seven. We get kids to do soil experiments, plant identification, foraging for mulch, creating worm farms, building habitat for frogs and lizards. It’s so much more.

“Growing food is a good way to start – it’s the hook – everybody likes tasting something, cooking and sharing food together, but then what happens next is down to the schools’ and the teachers’ particular interest. Their minds start ticking over and they realise there’s no end to what they can teach. Some people are really fascinated by making their own soils out of scraps while others are really taken by bush food and medicine. Some are passionate about making the garden beautiful with landscaping planning or designing a water feature.

“The program gives the teachers and the extended school community an opportunity to make the program their own, according to their interests, their resources and their site,” Leonie continues. “There are loads of great resources and lessons plans available, but providing a human resource in the first instance helps get the ball rolling and builds confidence to go out to any piece of land like their backyard, their local park or a bushcare site and to feel comfortable there. The aim is have the kids be able to say, ‘oh I recognise that plant, or describe the diversity, to know to collect seeds, or to determine the health of the soil and what it needs.’ It’s about building transferable skills.”

Leonie says the program is inspiring and empowering the community. “When people realise what an impact they can have, it empowers them to take responsibility, not just for their own actions but for those of others,” she says. “It’s really good for kids to feel empowered. They are a part of the ecosystem – they are an essential element. That comes with both power and responsibility.”

Leonie relates the story of how when she installed a compost at her preschool, one mother thought that composting was so putrid she just couldn’t do it. Through the awareness of her children, she finally agreed to bring scraps from home into the compost at the preschool. Over what’s now been seven years, she went from getting a worm farm to now having a compost, a worm farm and even chickens. “She and her husband were the most ‘un-green’ people you could imagine, but now when they have people over for a barbecue they insist that everybody separates their waste so that they can compost the scraps,” Leonie says.

There is a huge gap between having a kitchen garden in a school and having a great kitchen garden program. Gardens require commitment from the schools and its community and need specific maintenance (even over the school holidays). An aesthetically pleasing kitchen garden will help raise the awareness, commitment and enjoyment.  The management of the kitchen garden needs a team approach, which can be challenging as schools are dynamic places, where teachers and parents move on. Kitchen Garden programs need to be resilient and be able to continue to provide an on-going and interesting resource for teachers and students alike. Teachers have to make sure that they build on the students’ skills and knowledge each year in both local and global contexts.

There are connections between the boom in school gardens and the Children in Nature movement, led by US writer and journalist Richard Louv, which advocates that children should spend less time sitting down and more time outdoors. In Australia this is supported by various organisations such as Natureplay WA, in Western Australia, ( and backed by research such as by Planet Ark’s ‘Missing Trees: the story of an indoor nation’. This reports that for every hour we spend on outdoor recreation, we spend just over seven hours in front of screens watching television or accessing the Internet.

As concern for childhood obesity and the falling rates of physical activity has never been higher, getting children to move about while learning is a perfect combination.

Author Jakki Trenbath is a Project Officer at the Sustainable Schools NSW Program, NSW Office of Environment and Heritage.  She has three children at school in Sydney and is a gardening and sustainability enthusiast.

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