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.

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.