Teaching literacy and maths in the garden
The sun has finally come out and along with it, the children have developed a renewed interest in growing. B (aged 5) loves strawberries and tomatoes and gets great pleasure in planting, tending and harvesting them. She is not the only one! I have never met a child who hasn’t been interested in growing and the best schools harness this interest and build the curriculum around it.
When I was in class I always created a garden, with the children, so they were involved in the whole process – from the design, groundwork and planting – from seed to produce – in order to experience, first hand, where food comes from as well as encourage healthy eating. The children provided the school cook with a range of fruit and veg which was served with their lunch. The cook, in turn, provided them with occasional cooking lessons, whenever there was a glut of rhubarb or apples and taught them how to make a fruit crumble. As gardening provided many purposeful links to literacy and maths, I was able to allow children the time and space needed for real hands-on experiential learning whilst still meeting the learning and development requirements.
When talking to teachers today however it seems there are few schools that have a vegetable garden in their outdoor area, yet with child obesity on the rise, it is more important than ever that children are exposed to a variety of foods and information about healthy eating.
So why isn’t gardening on the agenda?
Time, knowledge and money seem to be the three things teachers cite for not doing this, along with a perception, for many, that learning takes place at a desk or sitting on the carpet as that is where the bulk of literacy and maths is taught. However, with a bit of forethought, these issues are easily overcome and provide children with a much richer vehicle for learning than that happening, at a table, in the classroom.
Gardening is a vehicle for learning across the curriculum but as reading, writing and maths are the main areas of focus for most schools, I shall concentrate on these specific areas of learning.
The need to ‘get through’ the timetable and a range of activities such as carpet time, individual or guided group reading, focus groups for maths and literacy, handwriting practice, intervention groups and even testing children, one at a time, on their knowledge of tricky words, are all reasons I have been given for not ‘having the time’ to utilise the outdoor area, much less garden.
Communication and Language
There is a huge amount of speaking and listening involved during the gardening process as children make discoveries, comment and ask questions about the plants or the minibeasts they have found.
Young children love to look at pictures and talk about themselves so photos are the ideal medium for this. I took many, as I have always found that photos are a great vehicle for follow up discussions and for reluctant writers, as everyone wanted to write about their photo. Photos of the process of planting were also a hit, as children ordered them independently and were eager to write a set of instructions.
The finished products were recorded in books or on classroom displays, along with scribed comments from discussions as children demonstrate their learning far more effectively through talk and, as the majority of children at my school had English as an additional language, it was also a good way of recording progression in their spoken English.
There are a number of purposeful links to writing when creating a garden such as:
- At the beginning of the project – creating a design for the garden and labelling it.
- Writing a shopping list before visiting the garden centre
- Thank you letters to the garden centre manager after the visit
- Labelling plants
- Writing signs and notices
- Making ‘How to..’ books – instructions on how to plant a bean/sunflower or how to make a fruit crumble/strawberry milkshake
- Writing bean diaries
- Labelling observational drawings or collages of plants
- Drawing and labelling a story map linked to the many stories associated with growing
- Posters advertising the sale of their produce
- instructions and information on plant labels and seed packets
- stories linked to growth, such as The Enormous Turnip, The Enormous Watermelon, Oliver’s Vegetables, Pumpkin soup etc.
- information books about growing plants and minibeasts
- simple recipe books (when cooking the harvested fruit/veg)
- Measuring the distance between bulbs when planting
- Measuring the growth of sunflower – how much has it grown in a week?
- Measuring Time – counting how many days it takes for grass seeds to germinate or how long it takes for the strawberries/tomatoes to ripen
- Measuring – the length or circumference of different produce
- Ordering – runner beans by length, tomatoes/pumkins by size
- Estimating how many plants will fit in a given space
- Counting out how many beans in a packet
- Sharing them between a group of children
- Sorting beans by type, size, colour
- Weighing the harvested produce – comparing the weight of a pumpkin to a bag of runner beans
You don’t need to be a gardener yourself to create one with the children. In fact, discovering how to do it with them provides a good model of the learning process as resources, such as information books and ‘how to’ videos are purposefully used to find the information needed.
Some children may already be proficient gardeners themselves, so it helps to find out what they already know about gardening and use this information when planning. Provide parents with information on the project and you never know, you may find that you have some keen gardeners who can provide you with some additional support.
Most plants have labels which indicate where the plants need to be situated. For most fruit and veg this is usually in full sun. Placement of the garden needs to be thought through as will the planting beds. Plant pots and containers, tyres, raised beds or even a palette attached to a sunny wall – all make for good mini gardens. There is a wealth of information on gardening with children, on Pinterest.
You can also find lots of information and support, as well as rewards, from The Royal Horticultural Society campaign for school gardening.
The lack of money is a common complaint from early years teachers who often subsidise classroom resources from their own pockets. Budgets seem to be at an all-time low, at the moment, so you need to be resourceful and look out for things that can be reused, repurposed and, more importantly, free!
Children’s watering cans are too small for watering a vegetable garden so make your own from a large liquid washing detergent bottle. The integral handle enables, even young children, to manage the weight, when filled, and gives their upper arms a good work out. You can get these in different sizes too – just ask parents to bring them in!
Involve local businesses as they may provide sponsorship or resources. I took my class to the garden centre every year and always came away with a good range of plants and compost. Some were donated by the garden centre, as I asked for a donation of plants and compost prior to the visit, and some were paid for by parents as they were asked for a £1 donation prior to the trip. £30 can buy quite a lot if you get seedlings and packets of seeds.
I used to ask my local authority for a few tonnes of soil, bark chippings and logs. These were delivered straight to the outside area and the children were all involved in transporting it to the garden.
There are many voluntary schemes that can provide support with building projects and, as long as you provide the resources, they will provide the manpower and building expertise. Look around to see what is available in your local area.
Finally, send out a wish list to parents as you never know what they have access to, either via their occupation or at home. Some may also offer their services to help in the construction of the planting beds. You never know what’s available until you ask!
Why not plan for a small mini garden this summer? Try it and be amazed at the difference it makes to levels of engagement and involvement and as a vehicle for the purposeful delivery of literacy and maths!