Harvesting Creativity - Erika Sager

27 October 2016

The view from LTL

Autumn is a busy time. Busy for schools and parents and students. Busy for head teachers and deputies.  And, as the light changes and the greens turn yellow, orange and brown, it is a busy time for the men and woman who look after the grounds.For schools this time of transition is reflected in the faces of new staff and students, with new lesson plans, new challenges, and new opportunities. For grounds keepers it is a time of great tidying. For gardeners this is a time synonymous with the harvest. It is a time when the hard work pays dividends. It is a time to celebrate.

Towards the end of the first half-term of this academic year, throughout the northern hemisphere, children (and adults) have been celebrating with assemblies and food bank collections and in some settings, with the harvest of produce from their school garden or growing space.

I have had the great fortune of harvesting at five schools this autumn as part of Enterprise Growing Gardens (EGG), the pilot project I am developing and delivering for LTL. Each setting diverse. The success and failures of each garden unique. But the constant, without fail, has been the enthusiasm, engagement and creativity of the pupils that I have the pleasure of learning with. It was truly the embodiment of the findings of the recently released Natural Connections Demonstration project report from Natural England (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/englands-largest-outdoor-learning-project-reveals-children-more-motivated-to-learn-when-outside).The Natural Connections Demonstration project supported schools and teachers "to build outdoor learning into their planning and practices and encouraged the supply of high quality learning outside the classroom in the natural environment."

This was more than simply taking lessons outside, though there is benefit in that as well, but focussed specifically on learning in natural environments (LINE). One of the findings was how valued LINE had become in the participating schools for supporting the creativity of students and teachers alike.  

85 per cent of schools saw a positive impact on behaviour. 90 per cent of staff surveyed found outdoor learning to be useful for curriculum delivery and 95 per cent of children surveyed said outdoor learning made lessons more enjoyable.

It was with this in mind that I sat in the entrance of one of the EGG schools, when I heard the receptionist exclaimed 'Oh, she won't like this' to a colleague and laugh. She had just opened an unsolicited flyer from an artificial grass supplier, complete with plastic grass swatch. The flyer proclaimed that their product could transform the school's play space, making it a safe, fun and easily maintained environment with the tagline: "Artificial grass that stimulates creative play".Two days later I was waiting at a different school and noticed that same plastic grass swatch. I commented on it and the women in the office all pointed to the swatches sitting cosily under their mugs of tea. They too received these unsolicited flyers every few months and had put the swatches to good use.

As we discussed flame retardant chemicals and the manufacturer's claims of a 10 year guarantee I couldn't but feel a little helpless in the face of safety surface plastic grass coupled with shrinking grounds keeping budgets.It can feel like nature bombards us with problems to overcome. Difficulties to be remedied. But thanks to the Natural Connection Demonstration project, we know that like constraint, learning in natural environments breeds creativity too. Plastic grass does not. There is no harvest on plastic grass. No celebration. No biodiversity. Different coloured plastic grass does not stimulate the level of creative play a native hedgerow might. It can never be curriculum linked.  A plastic surface that stays green all year round supports neither creativity nor an understanding of the seasons. One of the wonderful things about working with students in natural environments is the freedom they feel to explore and to express themselves creatively.

This busy autumn season, let's not "wave goodbye to mud and accidents", but celebrate them for the developmentally and cognitively important educational moments that they are. And remember, like the changing seasons, and the falling leaves, they are free and available to all. A full copy of the report is available here: http://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/publication/6636651036540928.


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