SUE LINN takes a tour around the school gar­dens at Daw­son Pri­mary in Otara.

Go Gardening - - Editorial -

A gar­den for learn­ing

At Daw­son Pri­mary school there is a class­room ded­i­cated to sci­ence and na­ture. Here, ev­ery child from new en­trants to Year 6 spends an hour each week with spe­cial­ist Sci­ence and En­vi­ron­ment teacher Deb­bie Davies.

The day I vis­ited I found Deb­bie in ac­tion with a smi­ley crew of Year 4 stu­dents com­plet­ing an ex­er­cise sort­ing ma­te­ri­als into solids, liq­uids and gases. Later that day she’s work­ing with Year Six stu­dents learn­ing about the struc­ture of solids, liq­uids and gases. I don’t re­mem­ber be­ing in­tro­duced to such things be­fore high school.

Deb­bie’s class­room is a vi­brant space filled with life and cre­ativ­ity. She apol­o­gises for the mess. I only see colour and warmth and a whole lot of plant and an­i­mal life go­ing on. Through a black­out cur­tain we en­ter a spe­cial ‘glow­worm cave’ and shine torches on var­i­ous in­sects and plants. I ask Deb­bie where she gets all her ideas from. She says the hard­est part is slow­ing the flow. “They keep me awake at night so I sleep with a pad and pen by the bed,” she con­fesses.

When the bell rings for morn­ing tea, Deb­bie takes me through the school’s gar­dens. First, a board walk through na­tive bush which ends with a but­ter­fly gar­den. Then through a gate to a vast area of raised vege beds, com­post heaps and worm farms.

The vege gar­den is be­tween sea­sons but there is still plenty to sup­ply the weekly cook­ing classes.

Pears and ap­ples hang from trees, there is a bounty of sil­ver­beet, herbs and salad greens, and they’re still har­vest­ing the ku­mara they planted be­fore the sum­mer hol­i­days. Through a locked gate we visit a ‘mini wet­land’ with na­tive plants and a pond alive with crea­tures.

In ad­di­tion to her class­room lessons, Deb­bie spends three to four morn­ing tea and lunchtime slots in the gar­dens each week with vol­un­teer teams of en­viro stu­dents.

When weather per­mits, she takes the class­room lessons out­doors. “Some weeks I have ev­ery class out­side. We take ad­van­tage of the sum­mer weather as much as we can,” says Deb­bie. “We might be plant­ing, col­lect­ing bugs, weed­ing, or col­lect­ing herbs, flax and flow­ers to dry or make po­tions with or to use for craft work. Some­times we do bird watch­ing or make bird feed­ers to hang in our trees. And we study the plants. Cur­rently, some of my se­nior stu­dents are us­ing iPads to re­search

which na­tive plant is which so we can es­tab­lish sig­nage for our na­tive gar­dens.”

On Tues­days and Wed­nes­days stu­dents join the school chef and par­ent vol­un­teers for a 90 minute ses­sion of gar­den­ing, cook­ing and eat­ing. Half the class are the des­ig­nated gar­den­ers for the ses­sion. They har­vest the veg­eta­bles and de­liver them to the kitchen. Then, while their class­mates pre­pare the meal, the gar­den­ers re­turn to the gar­den. When the meal is ready they all wash up and sit around set ta­bles to en­joy what is of­ten some­thing new and in­ter­est­ing for lunch. “We grow ev­ery­thing from Jerusalem and Globe ar­ti­chokes to kale,” says Deb­bie. “We have found that if they have grown it, the chil­dren will eat it .”

In Deb­bie’s ex­pe­ri­ence the five year olds are just as pas­sion­ate as the se­nior stu­dents. “Per­haps more so when it comes to ex­plor­ing in the worm farms! The hands on fac­tor at­tracts all age groups.”

What does she think about the idea that gar­den­ing makes kids smarter? “Based on my own ex­pe­ri­ence, and also from re­search that I have un­der­taken, I be­lieve it’s the abil­ity to have hands-on ex­pe­ri­ences that re­late directly to their own lives that en­hances stu­dents’ ed­u­ca­tional ex­pe­ri­ences. I have seen many stu­dents strug­gle to un­der­stand ab­stract math­e­mat­i­cal con­cepts like length-times-width-times-height when they have no vis­ual re­la­tion­ship to those fac­tors. How­ever, I have seen these same stu­dents us­ing tape mea­sures, work­ing around the edges of raised gar­dens and in­volved in deep dis­cus­sions with their peers in or­der to de­ter­mine how many cu­bic me­tres of soil we need to get de­liv­ered to top the gar­dens up. Mea­sur­ing 5 cm on a piece of pa­per can be mean­ing­less at times, but mark­ing that same mea­sure­ment on a piece of dow­elling in or­der to drill holes for seeds in the gar­den is a to­tally dif­fer­ent thing as far as some stu­dents are con­cerned.”

Daw­son School’s im­pres­sive gar­den and kitchen setup has a big rep­u­ta­tion lo­cally but it’s taken some pas­sion­ate in­di­vid­u­als strong com­mu­nity sup­port to get to this stage.

“Prior to my join­ing Daw­son Pri­mary we had a teacher who was also pas­sion­ate about gar­den­ing,” ex­plains Deb­bie. “She en­tered some com­pe­ti­tions (such as grow­ing straw­ber­ries) and won enough money to start up six gar­den beds and es­tab­lish some wa­ter tanks. After I joined the school we ap­plied suc­cess­fully for grants from Four Winds and Mazda, which helped to in­crease the num­ber of gar­dens. An­other teacher from our school

“We have found that if they have grown it, the chil­dren will eat it .”

gained fund­ing from the Coun­ties Manukau District Health Board which helped greatly with paths, gar­den­ing tools and kitchen equip­ment. Plan­ning ad­vice was do­nated by OPUS and after we joined the Gar­den to Ta­ble Trust we had fur­ther ac­cess to ad­vice and as­sis­tance with a gar­den spe­cial­ist twice a week.”

Deb­bie says the school’s ef­forts to gain fur­ther fund­ing to help main­tain the pro­gramme are con­stant and they are for­tu­nate to have a very sup­port­ive board of trustees who be­lieve in the value of a kitchen gar­den pro­gramme for their stu­dents. “In ad­di­tion we have been for­tu­nate to have the as­sis­tance of sev­eral vol­un­teer groups to help with phys­i­cal work.” These sup­port­ers in­clude BNZ Closed for Good, The Young War­riors, Kim­ber­ley Clark, and a lo­cal church group. They also have the sup­port of the school’s fam­i­lies who help out at work­ing bees.

When Deb­bie heads back to the class­room she as­signs Year 4 En­viro team mem­bers , Se­lesa, Jac­inta, Sela and Mi­lika, to es­cort me for a photo trip around the gar­den. Their pride in their school and its gar­dens is plain to see as they give me lessons on pol­li­na­tion, preda­tory in­sects and worms.

Later that day the sign off at the end of my email from Deb­bie reads, “If a child can’t learn the way we teach … maybe we should teach the way they learn.”

En­viro team mem­bers, Se­lesa, Jac­inta, Sela and Mi­lika.

ABOVE AND RIGHT: A board­walk makes a safe easy pas­sage through the veg­etable gar­dens. Sela and Mi­lika in­spect the swan plants in the but­ter­fly gar­den.

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