Dirty hands, happy hearts

In 1914 at Brooklyn Botanic Gardens in New York, Miss Ellen Eddy Shaw established the world’s first children’s garden. Miss Shaw hoped that all children in Brooklyn might have gardens and believed children’s gardens could be a ‘living opportunity for a child to learn lessons of nature and observe how nature looks out for herself’. In the year 2004, when children live in a world where food is genetically modified and where play for some equates to television or computer games, the garden is a wonderful place to return to and reconnect with the natural world.

The Ian Potter Foundation Children’s Garden opened at Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG) in October this year. Two years in the making, this sensory garden is a wonderland for children of all ages to explore. Gary Shadforth, the RBG Education Manager estimates approximately 2,500 school children have visited the Children’s Garden already. From kindergarten to tertiary, the RBG education program provides interactive and experiential learning experiences. Digging and planting are not normally encouraged in Botanic Gardens but they are here. Gary says, ‘It’s different to being in a classroom. Hopefully learning in this hands-on garden is an experience the kids will remember’.

The education program integrates horticulture with art, science, technology, geography and history. Sitting at the base of a 10,000-year-old fossilised River Red Gum tree dug up from a sand quarry in Albury, children listen to stories of the prehistoric and learn about the impact of humans on nature. In the kitchen, garden fresh food is the focus. Children plant and harvest vegies like beetroot, carrot, turnip and capsicum and smell and taste fresh herbs. Sustainability is a key philosophy underpinning many of the lessons. Children gather near a shallow rock pond to learn about the significance of water to life and nature and to the ecosystems it sustains. In the Discovery Shelter, an open air structure with a roof and two walls, children consolidate what they’ve learnt in the garden and explore further, looking at plants under microscopes or creating wind chimes to learn about nature’s elements. Gary says, ‘The only complaint we’ve had so far is from children who don’t want to leave’.

While the Botanic Gardens might be an obvious location for a children’s garden, a less obvious location but an equally magical environment is the rooftop of Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital. The Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) Horticultural Program began ten years ago. Originally the RCH Children’s Garden started as a rooftop project designed for patients in the 3 East Adolescent Unit that overlooks the rooftop. ‘Being in the garden is an opportunity for kids and families to take the focus off the medical reason why they’re here’, says Julie Robinson who co-ordinates the garden with renowned community garden coordinator Basil Natoli and a host of dedicated volunteers. Initially the RCH Children’s Garden was funded by independent trusts and relied on donations. The Cystic Fibrosis Society donated 65 potted roses to the RCH Children’s Garden after hearing the story of a little boy diagnosed with cystic fibrosis who told his dad he had been diagnosed with ‘65 roses’. In 2000 the Horticultural Program expanded its horizons and created a children’s garden at the rear of the hospital overlooking Royal Park. Art has become a feature of this new garden. Giant topiary dinosaurs watch over the flowerbeds while Gus the gardening dog, a colourful two metre tall metal sculpture, watches over the vegie garden.
 
Children play in the sandpit or watch fish swim in the mosaic fishpond.

In 2003 the newly established garden was at risk of closure as funding had run out. The patronage of Dame Elisabeth Murdoch made it possible for the garden program to continue and an auxiliary called ‘Dirty Hands Happy Hearts’ has been established to receive donations. Julie and Basil are funded to work with children in the garden on Monday afternoons and all day Thursday. ‘At present our focus is working with adolescents. We would like to secure funding to extend the program to young children’, says Julie.

Mother of five, Louise Williams travels with her family each day from rural Victoria to the RCH to visit her eldest daughter Rebecca. ‘The Children’s Garden is a godsend for parents’, says Louise. ‘It’s wonderful to have time alone with Rebecca while my husband takes our other children out to play in the garden. It’s too hard for the younger ones to sit still for long. The garden makes it easier for everyone.’ Fourteen-year-old Rebecca’s first trip outside her ward in the two weeks since she arrived at the hospital was to the Children’s Garden. With Julie’s assistance Rebecca spent the afternoon potting succulents in the sunshine while her brother and sisters played in the garden and her parents sat nearby. ‘Long term patients look forward to visiting the garden, children in the chronic illness ward build special bonds and love to visit the garden together’, says Julie.

Fifteen-year-old Kim Traile has been in the hospital for eight weeks. Kim is happy the garden was saved, ‘I like the garden because you forget you’re in a hospital. It’s like you’re in a park’.

Children in Years Three to Six at Collingwood College are learning the joys a fruit and vegetable garden can bring, thanks to the vision and initiative of restaurateur and food writer Stephanie Alexander. Motivated by her concern that ‘we may be witnessing the first generation in history that has not been required to participate in the primal socialisation rite, the family meal’, Stephanie was committed to creating a Kitchen Garden program in Australian schools. Childhood experiences of food influence attitudes to tasting food and food choices later in life. Stephanie believes in the power of leading by example and creating positive experiences with food for children. In particular, she hopes to do this for children living in lower socio-economic areas, who may otherwise have fewer opportunities. Stephanie cites evidence that suggests children from lower socio-economic families are prone to obesity due to poor food choices and less physical activity. The Kitchen Garden aims to address childhood obesity by being a preventative measure.

Stephanie’s confidence in the benefits a children’s kitchen garden could bring to Australian children is based on the success of The Edible Schoolyard, a kitchen garden established by legendary American restaurateur Alice Walker in collaboration with the Martin Luther King Jr Middle School, Berkeley, California.

Principal of Collingwood College, Frances Laurino embraced Stephanie’s vision and in late 2001, The Kitchen Garden at Collingwood College was established. Today the Kitchen Garden at Collingwood College is a verdant ‘supermarket’ of fresh vegetables, fruits and fragrant herbs. Children spend one period per week in the garden and two periods in the program’s fully equipped kitchen with a qualified chef, cooking foods that most parents couldn’t imagine children eating. Tortellini with pumpkin and ricotta, salad of young broccoli and beetroot stems tossed with olive oil and lemon juice, beetroot and chocolate chip muffins are all created by the children. The home grown and prepared food is then shared in Kitchen Garden dining room. Word is spreading about the success of the school’s Kitchen Garden program with schools in Queensland, Western Australia, Tasmania and New South Wales contacting the College expressing interest in establishing similar gardens.

Judy Masters, Principal of Brunswick South Primary School, says the Kitchen Garden at Collingwood College is their inspiration. The school established their own kitchen garden three years ago when Jenny Burke, the school’s Grade 5/6 teacher, coordinated a submission to Moreland City Council’s Sustainable Schools Project. The school’s submission secured a grant of $3,000 that enabled them to establish the garden, put up a fence and install a water tank. Judy says, ‘We really want to give the children an understanding of how food is grown and to teach them about cooking with fresh ingredients. The garden supports our healthy eating policy. While we can’t enforce [what] children eat, we encourage them in whatever way we can to make healthy food choices’. Jenny says there have been many additional activities and learning benefits inspired by the garden. For instance, in 2002 Jenny and a group of students launched a ‘Bring On The Rain—Grow and Sustain’ compilation of songs they composed and recorded about the garden. Another benefit has been the involvement and support of local retired community members who have volunteered in the garden over the years. Heather Chapple is a current volunteer and works in the garden one day a week attending to its overall maintenance spending time with children weeding, watering and planting.

The school’s integration aid, Margaret Meanie, works in the garden with children who have learning difficulties. Margaret finds taking the children out of the classroom and into the garden relaxes them and enhances their self-esteem. ‘They feel special to be outside in the garden when the other students are in class.’ While reading a picture book to Daniel, one of her grade three students, Margaret showed Daniel an illustration of a pea in a pod. ‘What’s that?’ he asked. Daniel had only ever seen frozen peas in a plastic packet. The next day Margaret brought in fresh peas in pods to show Daniel. Today peas grow in the Brunswick South Primary kitchen garden alongside parsley, tomato, lettuce, carrot, broccoli, spring onion, climbing beans, potato, lemon, passionfruit, radish and pumpkin. ‘Strawberries have been the other hit with the kids. They need to see results and they’re excited to see a strawberry grow and then eat it fresh from the plant’, says Margaret. Another one of Margaret’s students wrote a story about picking the first strawberry. The story was published in the school newsletter. Margaret says, ‘It was a very simple story that was challenging for him to write. He was so happy about finding the strawberry and really proud to take the newsletter home’. The timeless lessons of nature are as relevant today as they were in 1914.  

Nikki Fisher is a Melbourne-based freelance writer.

 

 

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