School garden a class act

Sat, Sep 29, 2012, 01:00

Children are given the chance to explore issues of sustainability, seasonality and food sovereignty, writes FIONNUALA FALLON

LIKE EVERY OTHER gardener who attended the Grow It Yourself (GIY) Gathering in Waterford earlier this month, I came away deeply impressed by the extraordinary hum of energy, optimism and enthusiasm that surrounded the event. Inspirational talks came from a clutch of remarkable social innovators including Roger Doiron, the American activist who lead the charge for the establishment of the White House kitchen garden, Pete Russell, the New-Zealand based businessman and founder of Out Of Our Own Back Yard (Ooooby), and Prof Paul Clarke, the author, environmental campaigner and dynamic founder of school/community-based sustainability projects such as Incredible Edible and Pop-Up-Farm.

Other speakers included some of the brightest young lights of the British gardening world – Alys Fowler, her fellow Guardian writer Lia Leendertz, self-sufficiency guru Simon Dawson, and Mark Diacono of Otter Farm – as well as our own Irish-based garden experts including the inimitable Joy Larkcom, Joyce Russell, Hans Wieland, Kitty Scully and Trevor Sargent.

But if there was one overriding theme that emerged most strongly from what was a remarkable weekend of remarkable talks, it was the joys, pleasures and the enormous importance of school gardens.

Darina Allen spoke eloquently of how such gardens foster fundamental life skills while nurturing good health and a lifelong love of home-grown food, while Alys Fowler talked of how the same gardens can be used as a positive tool to combat the rising tide of obesity (20 per cent of Irish children are already classified as obese or overweight). One GIYer mentioned the recent RHS study in the UK that included a survey of 1,300 teachers and 10 schools and which concluded that actively-used school gardens increased pupils’ confidence, resilience and self-esteem and also led to improved levels of literacy, oracy and numeracy. Others, and in particular Prof Paul Clarke, pointed out the key role that school gardens have to play as centres of ecoliteracy and as a means of exploring issues of sustainability, seasonality and food sovereignty, where “learning” comes from “doing” rather than by rote. But as to the extent to which the importance of school gardens is formally recognised and instilled at a curricular level in Irish schools . . . well, that was the question on everyone’s lips.

It’s a theme dear to the heart of Paddy Madden, the hugely respected, award-winning environmentalist and educator with 31 years’ experience as a primary teacher, during which time he designed and developed the country’s first wildlife/organic school garden at Scoil Treasa Naofa in Dublin. Since 2003, he has worked as a lecturer at the Marino Institute of Education, training future primary teachers. He’s also the author of many books and papers on school gardens, including the recently revised Go Wild At School, an informative manual on how to create an educational school garden.

In the book’s introduction, Madden writes movingly of the worrying disconnection between children and the natural world caused by modern technology. But, as he explained to me last week, it’s also a disconnection with far-reaching consequences for educators themselves. One telling example he gave was of a class of young trainee teachers that he asked to identify the leaves of 10 native trees. “The very best they could manage was two out of the 10 . . . ” Conversely, if schools and teachers are helped to nourish their pupils’ connection with the natural world from an early age, there’s every evidence that, as Madden so descriptively puts it, “they will have a sense of wonder and mystery about the world around them”. Round about now is the very best time to begin the process of planning, designing and creating these outdoor classrooms, a step-by-step process that should ideally be a collaborative between pupils and teachers, supported by parents. See below for advice on getting started.

How to .. . Paddy Madden’s book Go Wild at School is available for €15 plus €2 pp through the School Wildlife Garden Association (email Other valuable resources include the organisation Seed and the booklet “The Year Round Organic School Garden” (see gortbrackorganic farm.comas well as a series of downloadable worksheets available through the Bord Bia website ( Also check out Bord Bia’s DVD, Organic Gardening for Primary Schools.

What to. . . Go Wild At School contains a wealth of information on how garden projects can be used as powerful educational tools that, in the words of the Australian psychologist and school garden expert Kathleen Bagot, “elicit fascination, which is an effortless type of interest, rather than concentration, which can be hard work”. September, for example, is the time to plant a daffodil maze, while October is the ideal time to collect and sow seeds of native trees, explore log habitats, or study fungi. In association with the Blackrock Education Centre, Madden has also created a series of very accessible and instructive “How To” videos that follow school garden projects on a month-by-month basis. (See blackrockec.ieand follow the link to “Paddy’s School garden”).

Diary dates

Today: Dublin

Harvest Festival 2012 in Wolfe Tone Square, Dublin 1, from 11am-5pm. For details of the different activities/discussion, see

Saturday, October 13th (11am-2pm):, Irish Garden Plant Society plant sale at TCD Botanic Gardens, Palmerstown Park, Dublin 6. Shrubs, herbaceous and alpines, indoor plants and bulbs. See

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