From The Ground #17

It takes a lot more than gale force winds, downpours and a broken shelter to stop this bunch of kids from having fun. The weather at this afternoon’s From The Ground session was a mixed bag of blustery conditions, sunshine, rainbows and torrential rain. Children being children though, they weren’t deterred by any of it. It was wonderful to hear them screaming with excitement as the rain lashed down on their heads.

The allotment site in Oakridge is very open, with little protection from the elements, especially on a day like today. Although disappointing, it came as no surprise to see attendance was down. Only the most hardened of souls braved the weather. Yet it was great to see a new face there. One couldn’t help but think, or hope, that he had been inspired by yesterday’s seed saving workshop. Who knows. The point is he was there and he enjoyed himself.

The biggest blow of the afternoon was the damage to the shelter. It had been put up earlier in the day in readiness for the session. Having erected it with help the day before for the seed saving workshop, one knew a little more about how to do it second time around and so it was a relatively simple one man job. Much satisfaction was felt to see it up, pegged and firmly fixed to the ground. Or so one thought. When there are doubts in the back of one’s mind, one really ought to pay them a little more attention than one possibly did. However, such is one’s determination to see the children up there, come rain of shine, any rational thought went out of the window. On reflection, one should have realised that twelve pegs probably wouldn’t cut it. It doesn’t seem an overly sensible idea to erect what, for arguments sake, is really just a large sail in the middle of a very open site with gale force winds buffering it from all sides. With just two pegs in each corner and four guide ropes there was only one way it was ever going to end up - in the air!

Thankfully, when it was found, it wasn’t up in the air, but slumped casually over the compost bins. Worse still, one of the poles had snapped and there was a large tear in the fabric. It was pretty frustrating given the tent wasn’t even forty eight hours old. Still, it could have been worse. It could have sailed over to another allotmenteer’s plot, squashing their prized parsnips. So yes, the shelter may be down, but it won’t take the wind out of our sails.

Once everyone had helped to pack the shelter away, the children made a start on planting the Spring bulbs. Daffodils, tulips and alliums were all dug into the ground. They cleared the tractor tyre planters of the old bean and pea stalks and dug over the soil. Children bring an innate sense of fun to everything they apply themselves too. It’s a quality many adults would do well to remember. For example, one wouldn’t think there could be much of a game to be made out of planting bulbs. Wrong. The children delighted in carefully laying the bulbs on the surface of the soil before messing the pattern up with their hands. They then fetched a watering can and poured (too much) water over everything they’d just done before mixing it all up again! It was fascinating to watch. Muddy fingers galore.

It was lovely to see the children get stuck in. Little ones delighted in the task and when one doesn’t have enough hands to carry any more bulbs, teeth make a good alternative.

As the weather dried up and the rain clouds moved on, the most beautiful rainbow appeared. Where there’s a rainbow on the horizon one feels good things are just around the corner. There’s a lot of love for everything the children do on the allotment. What they achieve is felt not only by the parents and teachers but also by the wider community. At the seed saving workshop yesterday, a lady who lives in the village was walking her dog and stopped to chat. She was simply gushing with her approval for what the school is striving to achieve here. The path to success is often a bumpy one, so kind words by local folk go a long way in re-affirming one’s belief.

Once all the bulbs were in the ground, the children enjoyed pressing flowers. Some even tried to press a runner bean seed. Flower pressing is an old favourite but it’s an activity that hasn’t gone out of fashion. It made a refreshing change to see the children delighting in the simple task of picking flowers rather than playing on computer games. As with most things in life, it’s hard to find a balance between the things one wants to do, the things one has to do and the things one has never thought of doing. The greatest rewards often come from the most surprising of places.

While some children pressed flowers, others continued to forage for seeds. One can understand the children’s fascination with them. They’re rather captivating, not to mention incredibility colourful. One could almost be mistaken for thinking that it’s not pots of gold that are found at the end of a rainbow. If rainbows really did grow from seeds then what a wonderful variety of seed that would be, and hey, whose to say they don’t. In children’s eyes, anything is possible.

Seed Guardians

Days like today act as great reminders about what all the hard work is for. When we first started out on this journey, the crux of the initiative was to get more children outside enjoying nature and all the great things it brings. We wanted the children to develop a love of their environment and through that love find a deep desire to care for it that little bit more. Today’s seed saving workshop was a defining moment in the story of the school allotment.

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In the real world success can be a difficult thing to measure, however, on the allotment we work on the principle that if there are smiles and small people enjoying themselves then there’s hope that we might be doing something right. One of the key reasons why today’s workshop was so successful was because all the children really enjoyed themselves, not just the ones who have a natural interest in the environment. One of the biggest bones of contention From The Ground often feels is how to make environmental education more inclusive. How can it reach those children who don’t think it applies to them; who perhaps aren’t encouraged to take an active interest in looking after their planet; who think it’s not their responsibility? Today the school took huge steps in reaching those children and overcoming that barrier. One could feel the seeds of change being sown. When enthusiasm is so tangible that you can almost touch it, you know it’s been a good day in the office.

Great fulfilment comes from the knowledge that one is making a positive impact on the education of these children in ways that really matter. Nature can nurture our little ones in a way that formal education can only dream of. It can foster friendships, bring children together and ultimately change perspectives. Making our little people feel secure and special is a big part of what education should encompass, and yet frequently it doesn’t. With mental health problems on the rise, it’s clear that something is going wrong somewhere. From The Ground’s biggest driving factor has always been to empower children with the knowledge they need to make their own choices about how they view themselves and the world around them. When children are inspired by what they’re learning about, they develop great enthusiasm for the subject. It warmed one’s heart to see affection for the natural world stir in some of the most unlikely of characters. One could see the cogs of change starting to turn. There was a genuine interest in all twenty seven of them. It was hugely satisfying to witness.

Outdoor learning has a real place in the school curriculum and this couldn’t have been more apparent than today. Within one hour many different subjects were covered: maths, (counting of seeds), languages, (latin plant names), science, (seed conservation and identification), fine motor skills (child development), English, (writing, impromptu story telling - KS1 picked a pumpkin and they intend to make up their own Oakridge interpretation of Cinderella - can’t wait to hear that version!) There was substantiated evidence unfolding in front of everyone’s eyes that education is key to turning the heads of the next generation, (as if we didn’t know it.) We just need more school’s to cotton on. We need politicians to pull their fingers out. Education can be a real game changer. If lessons such as this were given on a weekly basis, then seeds of real change would be sown in the minds of children up and down the country.

Today’s seed saving workshop was given by Sally Oates, from social enterprise group Stroud Community Seed Bank. They are part of a global movement reclaiming seed sovereignty, growing seeds in gardens, allotments and community plots, to share with local people. From The Ground met Sally on the allotment a few weeks ago to discuss the format of the workshop and share ideas. What an inspirational lady she is.

Oakridge School is proud to call itself Gloucestershire’s first Seed Guardian school. It’s a wonderful accolade to hold, but what does it mean? Seed Guardians provide invaluable support to the work of Garden Organic’s seed library. Of the 40,000 packets of seeds distributed to members each year, around 50% are produced by Seed Guardians. There are currently only around 180 active Seed Guardians working hard to produce seed for the Heritage Seed Library. Demand for Heritage Seed Library varieties is high and it is often a challenge to ensure they have enough seed to supply. As Seed Guardians, the children carry out an essential role in maintaining sufficient amount of stock as well as safeguarding rare varieties. A true lesson in seed conservation.

Back in the Spring the children were given a Heritage Seed Library Orphan’s List. It contains varieties that have reached low levels and are in need of the care of Guardians to increase their numbers. It’s recommended that in the first year of being a Seed Guardian, that only one or two varieties are selected. Beans and peas are the most common as there is less chance of cross pollination.

The children selected a pea variety known as Big Ben. This variety is thought to be synonymous with pea Harrison Glory. It is thought to have been developed by Harrison's, a Leicester seed merchant, some time before 1855, when it was first offered by Suttons. By the 1860s it was available as far afield as New Zealand and the USA. It was also listed in EW King & Co Catalogue of 1898.

The second variety of seed they chose was a dwarf French bean known as Odawa Indian, (the Odawa bean traces its origins to the gardens and cooking fires of the Odawa people of Michigan's northwest Lower Peninsula. From the Anishinaabe "adaawe" (to trade), Odawa means "traders" and these beans found their way into the neighbouring Ojibwe, Hidatsa and European communities.) Seeds carry stories, and these stories ought not be forgotten.

From The Ground came across a recent article about an endangered species of pea grown by Charles Darwin in the mid 1880s that has since been saved from extinction by a network of green fingered ‘Seed Guardians’. The pea, known as ‘Champion of England’ has now been registered on the National List by a seed supplier, meaning it can now be sold commercially and enjoyed all over the world after its future was threatened decades ago. Despite being judged as ‘best pea’ by The Journal of Horticulture in 1876 and being grown by Darwin himself in his garden, the variety fell out of favour in the 1970s when mechanised harvesting took over. The seed companies chose not to register Champion of England for commercial sale, putting it at risk of dying out completely. But The Heritage Seed Library has continued to grow this endangered species, giving it a chance to be listed once more. The children at Oakridge have a chance of being involved in the preservation of this seed and similar important seed conservation projects. Now that’s a history lesson you wouldn't want them to miss out on.

In their role as seed guardians, the children did a lovely job of collecting their very special ‘Big Ben’ orphan seeds. Not only did they listen to what was being spoken about, but they respected the words that were said. There’s a difference. Ultimately, one feels they learned a hell of a lot.

Likewise with their Odawa Indian dwarf French beans. In the grand scheme of things, one might feel that seed heritage has no place in the current school curriculum. However, people frequently lack the vision to see beyond the obvious and it’s within those gaps that opportunities are created. A lack of vision in some provides endless open ended ways of seeing the world in delightful and uninhibited ways in others. There is much to be said about foresight and forward thinking.

Of course, it wasn’t just orphan seeds the children were saving. Over nine different seeds were identified and successfully collected: sweet peas, lettuce, sunflower, runner beans, peas, corn cockle, corn flower, phacelia and tomato. Apart from the heritage seeds, which the children will send back to the seed library, they will store the others and plant them next year, thus completing the cycle.

The session began with a brief overview and introduction, including information about heritage seeds, the children's role as seed guardians and the importance of seed conservation. Sally also explained the process of seed collection. The children were then split into six groups and shown which seeds to collect.

There is something to be said for the task at hand. There is much beauty in the brilliance of it. How often does one have the opportunity to be mindful though? Not so much these days. In a world where screen time dominates and social media sores, it’s a worry the way the world is going. To bring our children back to the bedrock of childhood, to the foundation of where imagination sparks, is so important, and it all comes alive in places like the allotment. Children re-connect with what it means to be a child. They rediscover their sense of curiosity, their sense of fun. Why? Because they’re looking up to the sky, way beyond the screen and instead to the horizon that lies beyond. There’s a whole world out there that they sadly just don’t seem to see anymore.

There is much correlation between ideas and the wonders of nature. Growth of any kind knows no boundaries. Great thoughts are formed from the tiniest of ideas, just as great trees grow from seeds, or flowers from bulbs. What starts as just a tiny seed can grow into the most prolific of ideas, given the right conditions. Only the mind knows the boundaries to which it can exist, and the wonderful thing about children is that they don’t know their own minds. They have a wonderful, uninibited beauty that knows no boundaries to which their imaginations can extend. There is so much room for growth. Hope inspires and with inspiration comes a determination to grow stronger. It’s that mindset one wants to embed in our children.

Today the children collected a wonderful and vast array of seeds. The sunflower seeds were a particular favourite, for obvious reasons. Children have such fond memories of trying to grow the tallest, straightest, longest, biggest. It’s no wonder they felt a strong connection to this rather glorious flower. One hopes when they’re older with children of their own that they too will engage with the simple pleasure of growing the tallest sunflower. Let’s hope that job hasn't fallen to robots by then.

The tomatoes also proved popular, but for very different reasons. Out of all of the seeds collected today, which were all dry, they were the only wet ones. How wonderful for the children to squish the seeds between their fingers and feel the gooey juices. It was a proper lesson of discovery that only hands on, outdoor learning can provide. They won’t look at a tomato in quite the same way again!

Often, when one opens their mind they also open their hearts and hands to a whole new way of seeing and feeling the world. One assumes that just because the school is nestled within the gorgeous Cotswold countryside that all the children intrinsically have that natural love of the great outdoors. That simply isn’t the case. Many children come to school each day without any great thought for the fields they pass or the birds that sore above their heads. There’s no love lost for the sights and sounds of nature that passes by them. If one stopped. Just for a moment. A whole new world might reveal itself.

Maybe it’s not us who are the guardians of seeds but seeds who are the guardians of us. Maybe they are here to act as a reminder to us of the responsibility that we have to sow seeds of faith, hope and love. To disperse ourselves as decent, honest human beings, as friends, parents and teachers, who self seed positive aspirations for our children. We leave much in the hands of our little ones but how can we be sure that the seeds we’ve sown are strong enough? If there was a seed library for humans, how many of us would be worth saving? In our children’s eyes, we would all be worthy. But as seasons change and years come and go, perhaps the seeds will be the last ones standing.

Seeds are beautiful things. Who knew they came in so many wonderful, vibrant colours. There really ought to be a Pantone system for them. Like gem stones plucked from a rock, they capture within children something quite intangible. We may have only had the allotment for less than a year, but time is a delight when you’re not in a hurry to use it up. That’s how the allotment feels. There’s never a hurry to be anyway or do anything. It’s not like real life. So let’s carry on telling our fairy tales. The hero isn’t a knight in shining armour or Prince Charming, it isn’t about a damsel in distress. The motto of the story is that there is no happy ending. Things don’t end well just because that’s the way the story goes. Our children need to know that they’re responsible for their own happy endings. That they’re responsible for how their world looks and if they don’t look after it then it won’t have a happy ending either. Seeds have a story all of their own, but it’s up to us to work out how we plant that seed in our children’s minds.

Tidying Up

This afternoon the whole school walked up to the allotment to tidy up the raised beds together. After a long Summer break, there was much to do! It’s always a really positive experience to see all the children on the plot getting stuck in and getting their hands dirty. Up at the allotment, the children’s enthusiasm spreads as quickly as the weeds!

As usual, the session began with a quick chat about what they would be doing. The class teachers split the children into six small groups. Each group was responsible for clearing and tidying a bed.

While there’s always plenty of work to be done on the allotment, there’s also plenty of time for rest and reflection. It’s staggering the amount of playdates and after school clubs youngsters are involved in these days. Rushing around is all very well, but when one is always in a race to get to the next activity, the moment of enjoying the one you’re doing can get lost. The allotment is a great space for just soaking up time.

The children did a grand job of clearing out the tomato bed. Despite not being grown undercover in a greenhouse, there were still plenty of red ones that the children enjoyed sampling!

There were also lots of green ones too…

…which the children made into chutney.

What we love about the allotment is that there’s always an air of optimism. One feels real good is being done in the education of these children and that positive and lasting changes are being made. When the whole school comes together up there, it’s a unifying moment that fortifies the school.

As well as tidying up the raised beds, the children also collected seeds in readiness for their up and coming seed workshop.

The children were all very focused on the tasks at hand. Given the opportunity, they could all develop a real love for the natural world, for gardening and for growing their own food. Delightful to see.

These two enjoyed picking the seeds out of an old sunflower head. It really is the simplest of activities that can give the most pleasure. To just be able to sit in the sunshine, with your mate and play with flowers, it’s lovely.

It’s been said before, but teamwork plays a crucial role in getting jobs done on the allotment. These two lads enjoyed heaving all the old tomato stalks into the wheelbarrow. All in all it was a lovely session.

From The Ground #16

This week’s From The Ground was a feast of beastly bones and fabulous animal anatomies. Fox, frog and rat skeletons stirred delight among the troops. It was a wonderfully tactile and fascinating session enjoyed by parents and children alike.

The large workbench is proving invaluable to our allotment activities. It’s hard to remember how we ever managed without it. There’s something delightful about setting it up in readiness for the children’s arrival. Perhaps it’s the anticipation of what is to come and the sense of great pleasure and delight that one knows is just about to arrive in leaps and bounds across the playing field.

The first activity of the session involved digging up the rat, which the children found in one of the raised beds back in March. If there’s anything dead to be found, you can guarantee that children will find it. It did however cause quite a lot of excitement, espeically when it was promised to them that they could unearth it later in the year.

True to our word, the excavation took place today. Expectations were high about what would be found. The reality was somewhat of a let down once the children realised all that remained was just a pile of very filthy, fragmented bones. The red ants that had moved in and built a nest on top of it did nothing to inspire enthusiasm either.

Not to be deterred, the Oakridge parents rallied morale and soon had the children fully engaged in the task at hand. The red ants were quick to make their escape.

Excitement grew relatively quickly as more bones were unearthed. At first the children couldn’t distinguish between what was a bone and what was simply soil, but after careful explanation they were quick to learn the difference. Ribs, femurs, parts of the skull and jaw bones complete with teeth were discovered. One hopes activities such as this provide unique memories for the children.

After picking out as many bones as they could find, the children carefully washed them. Little faces looked intrigued as the bones slowly revealed themselves. It was the first time that many of them had seen an animal skeleton, let alone touched one. However, getting up close to subjects that most people would prefer to simply glance over is great for a child’s natural curiosity. Death and decomposition are intrinsic to the circle of life. It’s important that children are exposed to these elements so that they can piece the whole puzzle together and understand where they fit in it.

Once the bones were clean, the children were keen to get them under the microscopes to examine them in more detail. This image shows a portion of the jaw of the rat, complete with some of its teeth.

While some of the children were examining the rat, others were piecing together fragments of the fox skeleton.

To help, the children were given diagrams to work from to aid their understanding about which bones went where.

It was a rather perplexing task that even some of the adults struggled with.

What’s so great about outdoor learning is its ability to engage all ages, from the very young to the (very) old! It’s all encompassing. It doesn’t care if you’re four or forty. Curiosity doesn’t age.

It was great to see the children so enthusiastic and engaged. The microscopes were a real hit.

It would have been great to have had a laptop to plug the microscopic camera into. Scientific photography takes everything to a whole new level. It opens up a whole new way of seeing the natural world. It’s got real merit on the allotment, be it to study flowers, plants or just curious creatures. The image below is from a section of the rat’s jaw. Worryingly, the teeth look to be in better condition than that of my own children.

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The image below is of the fox skeleton, which the children, (and parents) made a really good effort at reconstructing. With three skeletons to examine from three different animals, it provided a lovely opportunity to compare the different anatomies, both in terms of how bone structures inform an animals’ function, and also in terms of scale. To be able to compare the shoulder blade of a fox to a rat is fascinating for children. Hands on science lessons such as this have a real place within all children’s education.

From The Ground #15

One has to be very short sighted to miss the obvious benefits that come from spending time on the allotment. It was such a beautiful evening for our after school gardening session tonight. The children were happy, engaged and free spirited. It really brought home the reason why we all put so much effort in to this fabulous resource that the school now possesses.

The topic for the first week back was bird feeders. The bird feeding station that was kindly donated by Dobbies in Cirencester is located outside the school. It means the children can take more responsibility for topping it up. Far better than buying bird food, we like to make our own. After clearing Waitrose out of all its lard, the new work table was laid and the session prepped ready for the children’s arrival.

Children just love getting their hands gooey and covered in slime, so mixing up the lard and seeds was a real treat for them.

The session also provided an impromptu English lesson. The allotment can be slotted in to most places on the National Curriculum, one just needs a little imagination to understand how. Letter cookie cutters are a great way to prompt some spelling practice. It’s so much more fun than simply sitting at a desk reciting. Put quite simply, if children are inspired and engaged, they will intrinsically learn. Imagine if weekly spelling tests took place outside, in the open air, with hands on learning where the children not only got to learn how to spell but understand why it’s important to care for nature. It’s not that far fetched.

The reception and year 1 children all wanted to make a name for themselves, quite literally. Such super fun. Smiles a plenty. There is so much scope to learn through the environment and the world around them, and the children get so much from it. The loveliest thing is that the children will get to enjoy hanging up their bird feeders outside school and watch the birds enjoy the goodies they’ve left out.

Oakridge may be a small school but the friendship groups our children form will last them a life time. Wren, Elin and Thea’s friendship epitomises that quality. It’s better to have fewer friends that mean more than more friends who mean less. Big schools are way overrated.

Time spent on the allotment is time well spent. Adults and children alike find much rest and purpose from the simple pleasures that being outside brings. One has to work hard to ensure that all children at the school feel the full benefits of it. It’s not easy, but with great commitment, imagination and determination, there are ways of giving outdoor learning more recognition.

As Oakridge School reaches out to more organisations and environmental groups. we hope it will inspire the next generation to care more for their planet than the generation before them. There is no subject more important than the world in which they live. Oakridge School strives to provide our children with the most current and relevant educational topics, and we deliver them in creative, imaginative ways. Any child who has the great fortune of stumbling across this school is a child better off. There is no greater oak in the wood than Oakridge, and we all know how that phrase goes...

A New Dawn

As the Summer draws to an end and the start of a new school year begins, there is much to look forward to as the allotment enters its second season. There is a sunrise waiting on the horizon that will inspire, energise and give much joy to the children as they continue on their journey of discovery in this beautiful place.

Before embarking on new projects though, it was important to finish old ones. The fence around the pond and wildlife area was particularly important to complete, as was the large worktable.

Oakridge is very fortunate to enjoy such great relationships with parents, indeed, the school feels like an extended family at times and this couldn't have been more apparent than last weekend when teachers, children, Mums and Dads joined forces once again to get the jobs done.

First up, the worktable. Back in January, before the allotment had even got out of the ground, a member from the local community made a very generous donation of £500. It was in memory of his late wife, who herself had enjoyed her own allotment and apparently would have loved everything the children are doing on theirs. Given the poignant gesture, it was felt that it might be nice to invest the money in something substantial that would really aid the children’s learning and reflect the scale of the donation. A table was decided upon.

After months of deliberating, a design was finally settled on and the local blacksmith in the village was asked to make the metal frame into which planks would be slotted. The frame was walked up to site a few months ago but had been looking rather bare without a top on.

Given the lengthy process involved in getting the table made, there was a real sense of achievement to see it finally finished. The only outstanding detail is to mount a plaque in memory of the gentleman’s late wife. Thinking aloud, a small informal ceremony might be a nice way to mark the occasion, perhaps conducted by the local vicar and accompanied by the teachers, children, the gentleman himself and any parents who wish to attend. The allotment has helped to galvanise the school with the community and so it would be a nice way to maintain positive relationships with those who have been so kind as to show their support for the scheme and school as a whole.

The main job for the weekend though was the fence. Corner posts had been erected a few months ago but the whole thing was in desperate need of finishing. It was a fairly big undertaking but with great Oakridge spirit the job got done. By the end of Saturday the remaining holes for the fence posts had been dug, setting out completed and the top run fixed.

The beauty of the allotment is that you never know what you’re going to find. The opportunity of being caught by surprise is rather fun and what really delights the children. Back in the Spring for example, a dead rat was found and subsequently buried, (it’s due to be dug up soon and its skeleton studied), so you can imagine the excitement when the children found a dead frog at the bottom of the pond! Of course, they all wanted to look at it but none of them were brave enough to actually stick their hand in and retrieve it. That lovely task fell to one of the parents.

The skeleton was wonderfully preserved and provided an impromptu and insightful lesson into anatomy, form and function. Although still slightly decomposing, the children were fascinated by the toe bones in particular. They were so beautifully formed it was easy for them to imagine how the webbed skin could stretch over them. Their sense of curiosity was wonderful to see and really brought home why the allotment is so important: intrigue and unpredictability abound.

Work progressed rapidly on Sunday, so much so that come Monday morning the fence was looking rather majestic against the early morning sun. It’s such a beautiful time of the day, with just the song birds for company and the occasional, curious deer. Such animals make far better company than people. If children could experience a dawn chorus session, perhaps snuggled under blankets with hot chocolates in hands, it might be just what they need to get inspired by nature and appreciate the beauty of the great outdoors.

Gardening Club #14

Sometimes, there is as much reward in the process of making something than in the finished article, as some of the children discovered at last week’s gardening club. There is perhaps nothing more simple than a humble, hand made fishing net.

It has been a whirlwind of activity since the idea of the allotment was first conceived and the project, quite literally, raised from the ground. Wonderful to see what can be achieved in the space of just a few short months and, what has been more rewarding, are the clear educational benefits that it has brought to the children’s learning. Come rain or shine, many happy memories have been made since the very first gardening club back in January, and today’s activity was no exception.

The biggest success of the school allotment, from the children’s point of view, has to be the pond. It has proved a massive asset, helping to facilitate the children’s learning about life cycles and driving their enthusiasm to engage with the natural world. Over the past few months, they have been captivated by the tadpoles, and other forms of life, in this new wildlife area. It therefore seemed a good idea to indulge them in their passion by giving them the opportunity to make their own fishing nets.

It’s remarkable what can be made from a single piece of willow, cotton and a bit of mesh. It was a very resourceful session where the children learned lots of new skills: some had never picked up a needle and thread before and some had never weaved willow. It was a lesson in how to be mindful. They crafted with their hands and engaged their brains in the wonderful world of making. No one was rushing to get anywhere or do anything; there was no pressure and no time constraints. The children very much enjoyed being in the moment, engaged in the task at hand; a rare thing to be able to do in this digital world.

There were some who were keen to get the thing made so they could get on and enjoy what they love doing best, while others were happy to simply sit in the beautiful sunshine with a giant teddy, sewing contentedly to the sounds of song birds. This little lad sat for over an hour making his net and sewing up the seam. If it sounds idyllic that’s because it was.

As with all these slightly ad hoc ideas, one can never really know if they will actually work. Of course, had time allowed, the sensible thing would have been to make one earlier, but this isn’t Blue Peter and so the success of the activity was pinned on hope rather than any concrete prototype. It was therefore with great relief that the method of construction resulted in fully functioning nets that actually worked.

Not only that, but the pond’s first baby newt was caught in one, which created much excitement among the troops.

The children were also super excited to see the transformation of the tadpoles, many of which were hopping around the perimeter of the pond trying to avoid being caught.

Having been heavily man handled by a small heard of children for the majority of their relatively short lives, it came as no surprise to find that the tiny frogs were extremely docile and friendly, either that or they had simply resigned themselves.

The sense of satisfaction from making a fully functioning object that fulfils its purpose shouldn’t be overlooked: that feeling of achievement is important because it helps bolster a child’s confidence and belief in their own abilities. In the current national curriculum, little prominence is given to subjects that are hard to measure achievement by, and yet ironically, it’s within those subjects where children achieve the most. Perhaps those people pulling the strings of our children’s education should try making their own fishing nets, they might catch themselves by surprise.

Winston's Wish Wear Wellies Day

Two weeks ago, pupils, parents and staff were invited to pull their wellies on in support of Winston's Wish, and with the wet weather we had been having, no one had to think twice!

Winston's Wish is a Cheltenham based charity that supports bereaved children across the UK. Unlike adults, who stay with their grief, children often jump in and out of their grief, described as ‘puddle jumping’. Conversations can allow children to express their emotions; be it sadness, anger, joy or fear. By opening up these important conversations about death, children who are grieving can ‘puddle jump’ while understanding their mixed emotions.

There has been a lot of press coverage recently about how schools support bereaved children. The charity recently conducted a study by researchers at Cambridge University and found a random approach among schools, with children receiving only little or no help at all following bereavement. The full article can be viewed by clicking here. There are families within the Oakridge community who have felt the full support of Winston's Wish and so it was a wonderful opportunity to share in this positive fundraising effort for them and all children affected by grief.

The activities for the day couldn't have been more appropriate: the whole school enjoyed a trip to the allotment. Years 3 and 4 spent the morning putting their maths skills to good use; working out the spacing between tomato plants. Measurement is a statutory topic within the year 3 and 4 programmes of study and it was brilliant to see it being implemented so effectively through outdoor learning.

The children also measured the perimeters of various objects, which again, is another statutory topic within the curriculum. Tractor tyre planters proved particularly challenging given their large girth!

The shed was another useful object that the children enjoyed working out the perimeter of…

…whereas the pond proved a little more tricky!

Once the children had finished their math’s work, they enjoyed digging up potatoes, which they took back to the classroom and made soup from.

Learning about healthy lifestyles and understanding the importance of nutrition are topics that fall within the science and DT curriculums. It really was quite staggering that so many subjects could be covered in just a single day. Big thanks to the local parish council for allowing the school to acquire a plot on the community allotment site, without which the children wouldn't have many of the cross curricular learning opportunities that they now enjoy.

The morning session culminated with break spent on the playing field, adjacent to the school allotment. Fresh air, beautiful views and the gorgeous Cotswold countryside abound; our children are extremely fortunate to be able to grow up in such idyllic surroundings.

After lunch, all year groups took part in a scarecrow building exercise, and what a wonderful couple of hours it was! The children broke down into small groups and began by rummaging through all the old clothes that had been generously donated, picking out suitable attire for their scarecrows.

Next, they grabbed handfuls of straw and furiously stuffed arms, legs, heads and torsos with as much as they could feasibly fit! The children had so much enthusiasm and energy, it was delightful to watch.

There was a great sense of satisfaction when the first scarecrow was finished!

Outdoor learning promotes positive thinking, encourages conversation and draws on real life problem solving. It allows the children to engage with each other in a free flowing environment, where laughs abound and the normal constraints of the classroom are overruled. Just look at all these smiles.

It’s no wonder doctors in Dursley, Stroud, are prescribing ‘gardening on prescription’ to alleviate physical and mental health problems, as well as helping with obesity, lack of exercise, healthy eating, stress, anxiety and social isolation. It’s a ground breaking project and the first of its kind in the UK. The venture was begun three years ago by Down to Earth, a local community organisation that supports people in growing and harvesting their own fruit and vegetables. They are an inspiring bunch of people, who have given much support to Oakridge School’s own allotment project.

There are clear benefits to being outdoors in the fresh air, but not all children are fortunate enough to have access to such important learning opportunties. With the right funding and guidance, there is hope that an allotment or school gardening scheme can be rolled out to schools across the area therefore creating rich, environmental awareness among children, helping to create healthy, positive minds. There is great determination to bring individual schools together, under one framework, to create a network of green fingered, enthusiastic learners who, using a template of measurable, provable and tangible learning methods and targets, are taught about the importance of looking after their planet and all living things on it.

What outdoor learning has proven time and time again is that there are endless opportunities for cross curriculum learning that the boundaries of a classroom just cannot match. In the picture below, and using just a single piece of straw, a TA gives an impromptu lesson in 2-D shapes to one of the children due to start reception in September. It was a small moment but one that may well stick in that little girl’s head for a long time.

Mental health and emotional well being are at the fore front of everything that Oakridge School strives for. It's quite remarkable that all this took place on a day when the school was fundraising for the very charity that demands this type of support for children. It was an incredibly uplifting, positive and rewarding experience for all those involved.

The finished scarecrows are true creations of the children’s imaginations: bright, daring, dazzling and slightly crazy! They may well scare off not just the birds, but the other allotment holders too!

From the ones with the slightly crooked heads…

…to the baby faced ones…

…they all encapsulate a quality so inherent to children: fun, and it is that sense of playfulness that Oakridge School nurtures. There’s not much joy to be found within the limitations of the current national curriculum, so the efforts that individual schools go to, to bring life to the children’s learning go a long way in creating positive experiences that they will remember for the rest of their lives.

Environmental Education

It’s funny how life works out. The complicated, convoluted educational journey we embark on with our children, results in a path that leads us in a direction we never fore-sore. Oakridge School is such a path. Some hills are worth climbing if what’s on the other side of the summit is worth walking for. Whatever may lie on the other side, be it people you’ve never met or opportunities you’ve never had, a window of opportunity is created. With great passion and determination, much can be achieved and that’s how the school allotment was born.

Bringing environmental education to the forefront of the national curriculum is that summit. It’s thinking about what’s important to our children and making that thought count. It’s not always easy to make a lasting impression, but with spirit and belief, change can happen. It’s small steps that gradually, over time, gather momentum and turns heads. Eventually people will listen.

From The Ground recently met with David Drew, Shadow Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to discuss ways that environmental education can become more prominent within the national curriculum. He was extremely receptive to the conversation and the outcome of the meeting was very positive. David made some good suggestions about how to take the campaign forward. He confirmed he is willing to come on board and support it.

As it stands the national curriculum currently comprises of twelve subjects, classified as core (maths, English and science) and foundation, (art and design, citizenship (KS3 and KS4 only), computing, design and technology, languages, geography, history, music and physical education). There is no reference about the environment, bar one paragraph on page one hundred and sixty one within the year four programme of study:

"Pupils should explore examples of human impact, (both positive and negative) on environments, for example, the positive effects of nature reserves, ecologically planned parks, or garden ponds, and the negative effects of population and development, litter or deforestation."

Can one paragraph sum up everything that is wrong with our planet? There are one hundred and thirty pages devoted to English and maths, thirty one pages to science, five pages to history, four pages to design and technology and geography, three pages to languages and physical education and just two pages to art and design, computing and music. It’s a very boring read that is unbalanced, uninteresting and incredibly uninspiring. It’s no wonder so many children are being turned off from learning. In this day and age, with increased concern over climate change and other environmental issues, it's simply not good enough: the curriculum needs a massive overhaul to bring it bang up to date with 21st century issues. Why are our children not being given the opportunities to learn about subjects that really matter? The curriculum could be so much more diverse and engaging, it could be generating enthusiasm and enjoyment and the children could be reaping the rewards that come with the benefits that outdoor learning brings.

Attempts have been made in the past to recognise environmental education. To take an excerpt or two from The Environmental Curriculum written by the NAEE, the breakthrough came in 1990 when it was introduced as a cross-curricular theme. However, when the national curriculum was reviewed in 1994 the revised version no longer made any explicit reference to the subject.

In 2000, Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) was introduced as a non-statutory element of the curriculum. This was followed in 2006 by the launch of the Government's Sustainable School's Strategy (S3), which encouraged schools to follow environmental topics in order to become completely sustainable by 2020, (that’s next year, and just look at how far away we are from that.) S3 was scrapped by the education secretary in 2010.

Since the national curriculum was further streamlined in 2014, there is still no explicit reference to environmental education and this is where we are at with things today.

The reason From The Ground met David Drew is because we want environmental education to be added as a core subject to the national curriculum for all key stages. With backing from David, advice about how that goal can be achieved and gaining local support from schools and environmental groups, much progress can be made.

There are three interrelated components of environmental education, (words taken from The Environmental Curriculum written by the NAEE):

Education IN the environment

The 'hands-on' element which uses the children's immediate surroundings and the wider world as a learning resource.

Education ABOUT the environment

Developing knowledge and understanding about the environment should begin with an awareness of the local environment and then expand to an understanding of global environmental issues.

Education FOR the environment

The development of positive attitudes and behaviours towards the environment. This can only be effective if the other two elements are in place.

Within the subject of environment, suggested statutory topics could include the following:

1. Climate change

2. Over population

3. Intensive farming and GM food

4. Natural disasters

5. Environmental degradation

6. Pollution (plastic and ocean waste)

7. Sustainability

8. Conservation

9. Resource depletion (habitat loss)

10. Recycling

11. Environmental law

In addition, we also want school gardening to be made statutory within the national curriculum framework and legislation put in place making it compulsory for all schools to adopt their own independent, environmental code.

There are some that proclaim that all this is already integrated within the curriculum, but quite frankly, those who think that, need to do a little more soul searching. Yes, there are opportunities within the current framework but does it go far enough? Previous attempts by past governments to get more recognition for the subject suggests that it doesn’t. Are we, as parents, satisfied that the curriculum is delivering a comprehensive environmental education to our children? Can we be confident that important environmental topics are being delivered on a daily basis?

One can’t sweep subjects such as climate change, plastic pollution, ocean waste, habitat loss and conservation of our native species under the carpet: they are problems that have been caused by us and solving them is fundamental to human existence. Further more, none of those words are currently specifically referenced within the national curriculum. How are our children to understand the importance of these key concepts if they aren’t given the opportunity to learn them? If twelve subjects could be expanded to thirteen, then perhaps there is a chance of human survival: not unlucky for some. Education is the key to change, and it is our responsibility, as the now generation, to teach the next generation, so that our children and our children’s children can keep an open mind about the importance of preserving and saving our planet. Put your hand up who’s in?

The meeting with David Drew proved most useful, with David offering some insightful views into how we can begin to try and force change. In order to get to the top, one needs to work up from the bottom and that starts with gathering evidence. As a starting point, David suggested From The Ground cross reference the entire science curriculum with everything Oakridge School are doing on the allotment in order to show that it is a provable and measurable learning device. Once all the relevant areas within the national curriculum have been highlighted, the hope is that an environmental education plan can be rolled out to schools in the area to encourage them to come on board and implement a similar initiative. A draft petition that focuses specifically on schools will ask if they would sign up to make environmental education a core subject on the national curriculum. A Parliamentary question would then inevitably follow.

From The Ground has cross referenced not only the science curriculum, but the whole curriculum. A lot of nights have been spent pouring over a rather dull read full of rules and rather boring regulations: one struggles to find any form of delight in a document that has clearly been written by relics from the past who have lost touch with what it’s like to be a child. Yet with commitment and tenacity, opportunities have been discovered: just last week class two spent a morning doing a maths session on the allotment learning about perimeters. When one weighs up the benefits of outdoor learning against the limitations of classroom learning, the gap is immeasurable.

We are lucky at Oakridge that the school is committed to ensuring the children are taught a creative curriculum that utilises the local environment as much as possible, but we are in the minority and a minority isn’t enough to create positive, lasting change. The pressure the government places on schools to force our children to read and write before they can walk results in an unrealistic approach to education. The outcome is negative learning and children lack confidence because they struggle with the workload. They ultimately switch off. The curriculum is so heavily weighted towards maths and English, there is little room for other subjects, even the ones that are in it, let alone the addition of any new ones, but we must try. The children are our greatest inspiration and it is for their benefit that we strive to make these changes.

The curriculum content for design and technology is interesting. It states that all pupils should:

“Develop the creative, technical and practical expertise needed to perform everyday tasks confidently…build and apply a repertoire of knowledge, understanding and skills in order to design and make high quality products for a wide range of users…understand and apply the principles of nutrition and learn how to cook."

There are many obvious links to the allotment here and one can think of many projects that the children have undertaken in recent months that support this topic: scarecrow building, dry stone walling and the installation of the irrigation system. What’s really interesting though, is that the majority of these activities were done so outside of school hours. The bird hides below were mainly built and constructed during gardening club, which takes place after school.

The irrigation system has been another very successful project that the children have been involved with. As part of a recent geography lesson, they learned about different rainwater harvesting systems in other countries. The class two teacher then asked them to design a system that would work on the allotment. The children did a site visit and made models and their enthusiasm was terrific to see. However, the actual installation took place after school during gardening club. The class two teacher led the session but only with a handful of the children. It was disappointing that not all the children got to enjoy helping with the installation of the very thing they designed. It’s not the teacher’s fault and it’s not the school’s fault. It screams of a curriculum that is enormously limited, and yet, within the design and technology content it states that:

“Children should select and use a range of tools and equipment to perform practical tasks, (for example, cutting, shaping, joining and finishing.)”

This sort of activity is part of the compulsory school curriculum so why is it not being taught during school hours? There simply isn’t enough time, resources or people power.

It’s left to a small group of parent volunteers to step up and fill the gap, and not all schools have those dedicated, passionate individuals. Ultimately it’s the children who miss out, especially the ones who who aren’t interested in learning about the environment; the ones who think that looking after the natural world isn’t their responsibility; the ones who think that someone else will just do it for them. They’re the ones who need educating. Not all children very much enjoy maths and English and yet they are subjected to both topics every day, five days a week. Imagine if the same importance was placed on environmental education? Imagine if children were forced to learn about nature and the wonders of their beautiful planet? How very different would their attitudes be then?

The school celebrated World Book Day by inviting an author to the allotment to share some of her stories and poems with the children. It was a wonderfully, constructive session from which weeks of learning outcomes were produced. But it was an initiative that was paid for by the PTA and From The Ground and not something that all schools could necessarily afford and that’s a question of funding.

As David Drew cited, funding cuts are a huge barrier to change, but there is good news there. The restrictions on how sports funding within schools is used is, apparently, loosening:

“The premium must be spent by schools on making additional and sustainable improvements to the provision of PE, physical activity and sport for the benefit of all pupils to encourage the development of healthy, active lifestyles.”

Healthy, active lifestyles entails a whole heap of relevant outdoor, environmental learning. Certainly Oakridge School supports that concept to the very end. The children enjoy the benefits of sports sessions at least twice weekly, with forest school activities and trips to the allotment on top of that, and the school still doesn’t use half the funding it receives. The excess frequently gets sent back as it can’t be rolled over to the next academic year: it’s a waste. People use funding as an excuse; they complain of not having any money to support environmental education, but if one thought a little more creatively, they would realise that just isn’t the case. The money is there, it just isn’t being utilised as best it could be. On the allotment, the children dig, plant, grow and generally enjoy fresh air, beautiful countryside and the company of each other. If that doesn’t fall under the category of promoting a healthy and active lifestyle, what does? Our children are bright, little beacons who thrive when given purposeful, hands on learning. Funding could be spent on acquiring allotment plots, developing existing areas within school grounds or paying for workshops from local environmental groups. Much more could be done to change attitudes.

The photo below is a wonderful example of the positive effects of outdoor education: team work, resilience, (we all love a bit of rain), hard work and perseverance. Just delightful to see.

There shouldn’t be opposition to promoting positive attitudes about our environment and encouraging enthusiasm within our children. It is our responsibility to ensure they receive a comprehensive education about the subject because our children hold the future of the planet in their hands. If they don’t understand why it’s important to look after it, then who is going to care?

One wants to see explicit reference to environmental education within the national curriculum: it needs to be prioritised. It needs to teach our children about the importance of valuing their planet and the things living on it: there is no subject more important. Imagine a world where generations of children are being educated about how to live sustainably, the importance of living resourcefully, the beauty in nature and the concept of conservation? There could be generations upon generations of young people aspiring to be environmentalists, ecologists and conservationists. Imagine the difference that could make to our planet?

So lets’ break down the barriers to change, put two fingers up to the rules and unite together to make a change for our children’s future. We want to be confident that our children are being armed with the knowledge they need to look after their planet and the understanding that it is their responsibility. As David Drew pointed out, change is happening in some schools, but it's not enough. It needs to come from central government. Education is the key and it has to be enforced from the top. Yes it’s an already very busy curriculum but room has to be made. No question.

Oakridge School and From The Ground are two united organisations made up of a committed bunch of individuals who all have one common purpose in mind: to provide something better for their children. Together, to date, the school has raised over £1000 with a further £500 coming from Learning Through Landscapes. With great thought, commitment and determination, much can be achieved for the better good of the children and our planet. It’s just small steps, but it’s large leaps in terms of how the children view the environment and their love of the natural world.

From The Ground doesn’t have a background in education or the environment but we do possess great tenacity, passion and determination; the biggest motivator is our children. With the appointment of the new head teacher, there are are great hopes that connections can be forged between local schools to create a labyrinth of green pockets and spaces, giving nature, and children, the opportunity to flourish: lets not limit it to just Oakridge. There are many schools all within close proximity of each other that can mutually benefit from cross curricular lessons. Let the children share ideas, seed swap and chat about nature and why they love it. Let’s spread the word about the importance of environmental education and in so doing let playgrounds come alive with positive mindsets that not only enjoy the beauty that nature brings, but more importantly respect it. Now that’s a lesson worth learning about.

Sowing the Seeds for Social Growth

On the allotment, it’s surprising what grows; it goes a lot deeper than just vegetables. It’s an organic, evolving space where seeds of social change are being sown. It’s a valuable learning resource for the children, but it is also a platform for families to meet and gather; chat and play. It promotes health and well being, fosters friendships and channels peace of mind.

When not being used by the school for cross curriculum topics, or by gardening club for after school activities, it has been delightful to see individual families using the allotment in their own time, for their own purpose: to enjoy the simple pleasures that are to be found from the ground. One Mum explained how she and her son often stop there on their way home from school. Her son will engage in a spot of pond dipping as she sits and relaxes, watching on. The allotment offers them something that their own garden does not: open space, countryside views, fresh air and tranquility. It was deeply encouraging to hear her talk about the benefits it brings to her family’s health and wellbeing.

That families can ‘bump’ into each other in this way adds an interesting social dynamic to the school. Parents with young children can sometimes feel isolated, with many carrying the weight of work and life pressures on their shoulders. The school run is not conducive for finding solace among friends. The allotment, however, provides a space, not only for friends to take a moment together, but strangers too. Oakridge is a small school, but there are still a surprising number of Mums and Dads who don’t know each other all that well. Sometimes it’s nice just to stop, and the allotment is that stop. It provides an alternative space for the school community, where conversations can carry in the wind and self seed in the most surprising of places. Just recently two families bumped into each other there. The Mum’s had never spoken to each other before and yet they discovered they had a remarkable amount in common. The allotment provides opportunities for chance encounters from which longer term connections between people can be made.

It’s the children who ultimately benefit though. The allotment is a powerful tool that helps friendships germinate and inquisitive minds to blossom. The picture below is another example of the allotment’s social success story. Little ones can kick off their shoes and stresses from the day and loose themselves in a world of natural wonder. Friendships can be enjoyed, imaginations can run wild and hearts can sing to the songs of the birds. That sense of belonging and escaping, both simultaneously, are what makes the allotment special.

Just last week, two families enjoyed an impromptu play date. The Mum’s mowed and strimmed, the younger ones played, while the older ones were keen to help. One doesn’t feel inhibited when engaged in productive tasks. Shyness ebbs away and is replaced with a natural curiosity; at the allotment, the children flourish as much as the flowers. Nature evokes an enthusiasm that formal education can only dream of. There is a deep desire to engage in activities, which for the most part, require working together as a team. This couldn’t be more true for the two children in the picture below, who helped to strim the raised beds. There was mutual turn taking, not only with the strimmer but, lacking any safety goggles, also with the young girl’s glasses! One would hold the water soaker hose up while the other strimmed and then they would swap. A valued partnership was formed as was an important lesson in friendship.

You don’t have to dig very deep to see how well rooted children, and adults for that matter, become when they’re given time and space to grow, naturally. Purposeful tasks soak up normal social boundaries and consequently, conversations bud with evergreen smiles. Since the allotment’s first inception six months ago, great energy has gone into creating a productive plot that is capable of growing vegetables. To this end, staff, pupils and parents have succeeded: potatoes, broad beans, lettuces and courgettes are all ready and waiting to be picked. What the allotment has also shown is that it is capable of growing friendships too. The term companion planting couldn’t be more apt: we have created our own special community, which has mutual benefits for everyone. Much like our children, who have nurtured the vegetables on the allotment, so we nurture our children, and in so doing, help them grow into strong, young adults.