Top tips for getting pupils excited about the muddy outdoors!

Jill Crooks

Jill Crooks has been involved in the gardening industry for over 12 years. As a qualified garden designer she has won gold at the Chelsea Flower Show, and has obtained several horticultural qualifications through the RHS. With a keen interest in environmental issues and a concern about the increasing lack of interest in the world around us, Jill got together with a fellow garden designer to help children discover gardening life skills and learn how plan, care for and enjoy their outdoor spaces. Running gardening workshops in schools, Jill has experience in teaching Early Years, KS1 and KS2.

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Originally published on 9th December 2015 Originally published on 9th December 2015

In my experience once you’ve got children outdoors digging in the soil, pulling up worms, squidging slugs and generally losing themselves in the natural world……it’s difficult to get them back indoors!

But how to do you develop their eagerness to be outside into a valuable life skill, one which we call gardening but is so much more than tending to plants? A life skill that keeps you healthy, builds confidence, gets children talking and sharing, one which develops a deep knowledge and life long respect for nature…?

1. Kids are creative - get them designing

Don’t wait until you have a developed a garden, get children involved right from the start. It’s amazing what pupils come up with if you fire their imaginations. Get them working together in small teams, what would they like in their garden? What wildlife do they want to attract - birds, pollinating insects? What habitats would these creatures need - what shelter, what food? Do they want to grow fruit and veg - what’s their favourite vegetable? What’s needed to grow veg? What’s their favourite flower?

Once they have a wish list of all the things they’d like to include have fun thinking about themes, perhaps a favourite film, a book or maybe the colours of a sports team. Let their imaginations go wild - this can bring a design to life for children. You may not be able to implement everything but there will be some great ideas that they can take ownership of.

2. Fool-proof plants

With today’s desire for instant gratification, planting a seed, waiting a few days (maybe a few weeks) with sometimes only a chance of germination… well, it’s just not going to cut it. Start with plants that are easy to grow - that means they will grow quickly - and just about anywhere.

  • Radishes - I can already hear the skeptical amongst you saying “how many kids like radishes?” Well you have a point, but the real point is the awe, wonder and experience of seeing a tiny seed start to develop and grow into a plant. That’s what kids are going to remember, and that’s what’s going to inspire them. Try growing a variety of colours - red, green, purple, white. Then there’s the added bonus if you can persuade them to eat them - try stir-frying, roasting, or if all else fails, get creative with imaginative carving.

  • Broad beans - Not only do they grow quickly, but they are great for attracting pollinating insects, and therefore great for a successful mini beast hunt. Sow in autumn for an earlier crop in May/June, or in spring for harvesting from July onwards. Children can sow their own broad bean in a 9cm pot and will take great delight in checking whose bean germinates first and who has the tallest plant. Plants can be transplanted into the ground in spring. Opening a thick furry pod to find large beans inside adds another element of excitement.

  • French marigolds - These bright and cheerful flowers have many benefits: easy-to-handle seeds, easy to care for, they grow quickly, the vivid flowers bloom for ages and for the vegetable garden they are valuable companion plants. Teach children to garden organically - the roots produce a chemical that is a natural pesticide for years after the plants have gone. Grow them with tomatoes and potatoes to deter soil nematodes

  • Sunflowers - an obvious one, but kids love ‘em. ‘Mongolian Giant’ grows over 4 meters!

3. Childrens tools - you can never have enough!

Take a group of children show them a pile of soil or compost, and the first thing they want to do is grab a trowel and get digging. Its like Black Friday; one minute you have a pile of trowels and forks and the next there is a scrum, and no matter how many you started with there is never enough to go round. Small tools are not expensive but make all the difference to a child feeling excluded or not. Appoint a tool monitor, ensure there are enough for the whole class, make sure children are aware of tool safety, instil a pride in looking after their tools, clean them and put them away in a tool store when finished.
4. Tasty edibles

Once the children have experienced the sense of wonder of realising they really can grow a plant, then it makes sense to grow something they just love to eat. One of the A-listers has to be strawberries. There aren’t many children who’d turn their nose up at a sweet, red fleshed, melt-in-the-mouth strawb! Strawberries are also very versatile. So long as they have sunshine and good drainage, you can grow them in the ground, in raised beds or in hanging containers (but keep them well watered). For hanging strawberries, try the smaller alpine strawberry or other smaller-fruited variety such as Tristar.

I’d suggest you buy the small plug plants to get them off to a good start. Once established, strawberries are great; creating new plants all by themselves, they send out long ‘runners’ that root when they touch the soil and establish new plants. In fact, you’ll need to keep them in check or they will ‘overrun’ the area. It’s best to pot up the new plants once they have a good root system, and replace your old plants with these every two-to-three years.

Why not plan a garden party for parents and locals - what better than to serve up fresh scones with delicious own grown strawberries…? Yum. You can just feel the pride!

5. Keep momentum going with competitions

There are many different things classes can compete for, and it can keep the whole school involved and motivated:

  • Most oddly-shaped vegetable.

  • Most unusual planter - planters can be made from all manner of recycled items, such as painted wellies, old gardening boots, colanders, saucepans (all need holes for drainage, though!). One of the best one’s I’ve seen is a pair of old trousers stuffed full of soil ‘sitting’ in an old deckchair!

  • Best plant label - painted stones, painted lolly stick etc. Kids can have lots of fun with these.

Don’t be overwhelmed by trying to do to much or not having the budget for large garden projects - it’s better to do something, however small, and get the children involved. One of the most important elements is motivated and enthusiastic teachers and parents. Ask teachers and children to bring in examples of their own produce from home…..get the gardening conversation started.

Does your school garden? Share your stories below!

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