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Children's individual learning style in gardens

The increasing empirical research on food garden pedagogies, their benefits and impact on learning is reflected through a growing body of literature. Less common in the research, however, are children's different perspectives on garden learning, including the specific ways they make meaning of their learning. As a starting point, Jennie provided valuable insights into her perceptions of children's learning, describing the garden as a space for differentiated and unique learning opportunities:

Some of the kids will come out into the garden and they're really mathematical and analytical-minded kids and they'll get out there and they've got their spacing thing going on and they're counting and there's measurement, and they're really precise about that. But there are other kids who are incredibly artistic and their focus is the beauty and the form and they take that back to the classroom and they're working at their drawings.

For Thomas, an avid cook and gardener at 9 years old, the kitchen garden experiences are fun and creative, particularly with regard to trialing new recipes with freshly harvested ingredients.

We grow edible flowers, we just put them in salads for more colour. We grow carrots, Italian greens, fennel, rhubarb and lots of other stuff. We use some of the food from the garden to cook. It's nice to cook at school, we learn new recipes. At home we invite our family over because we've got quite a big family and we have Italian feasts and stuff like that. My favourite food that we're growing at the moment would have to be onions. We caramelise the onions and then my second favourite one is potatoes. We put brown sugar and we cook the onions and the potatoes together and then we mash it and it's real nice, it's a Dutch recipe.

Thomas' story reflects a deep connection to school and home environments where he is highly motivated to learn about growing and eating fresh food. Only a youngster, I am impressed by his discerning sensibility about cooking and gardening and his ability to talk about recipes and particular tastes, a skill I have only mastered in my adult life. When our conversation changes direction about some of the new things he has learned at school in the garden programme he tells me:

Oh there are heaps of things that I have learnt. I've learnt different plants, I've learnt how to care for plants, I've learnt how to make things that I didn't know I ever would make. I've learnt how to plant seeds and all that sort of stuff. The thing that I would look forward to the most is learning new stuff and weeding because I love weeding. Weeding is really fun because you get to learn all the different types of weeds and what to pull out and what not to pull out of the garden and basically in our garden we sometimes make a mistake and sometimes you don't and you learn by mistakes. I'll probably grow up and have my own garden.

Thomas' learning list is extensive, and I have no hesitation in believing that one day he will have his own garden. As Jennie highlighted in her earlier comments, other students have different perceptions of the garden that are not so much concerned with growing food or tending the garden. She told the story of Harry, an older student, who had approached her at the end of a lesson to say 'he had seen and done everything in the garden that there was to do'. When she asked him if he had seen the red currants, he replied that he hadn't.

'Come and have a look at this' [says Jennie]. We go down to the red currant bush and he's like 'Yep, so'? This boy loves to draw, he's very musical and artistic. I said, 'Have a look at this', so we bob down and I lifted up the leaves of the bush and underneath were red currant fruits on the inside of the tree and as I lifted it the light came through from behind and they all looked like these little translucent orbs and they were just beautiful. And he just went, 'wow' and I said, 'Isn't that stunning?' and he said, 'They're like little planets, sea creatures that you see down in the depths where no light happens'. I said, 'Imagine having the skill to be able to draw that and capture that light'. And he went, 'Oh imagine that'. I said 'Do you want to give it a go?' and he went 'Can I?', and I said 'That's what your diary is for, it's not just for writing, it's for observations, if you see it and you want to draw it go for it'. I walked away and when I turned around he had grabbed a whole heap of other kids and he's like 'Have a look at this, you've got to see this'. Now every time he comes into the garden and I describe what it is we're going to do he'll come up and he'll say 'Can I do some drawing?' And I say 'At the end of the class when you've done this, yes you can spend 10 minutes drawing something in the garden'. That's his thing.

What happens in this vignette is the opening up of a hugely creative world. Jennie as educator has tapped in to the student's artistic sensibility; in the opportunity to draw the redcurrants Harry has discovered 'his thing' in the garden. The jewel-like, otherworldly quality Harry sees in the berries is the catalyst for his re-engagement with his own potential and the potential of the garden. Jennie's knowledge of Harry's proclivity for drawing and the arts is an important thread of connection that allows her to engage at his level of interest. She knows her student and she holds the secret of the hidden berries, and is successful in bringing the two together.

The two children's stories speak to the ways students are accepted and situated as unique learners in the garden context, who bring and are able to express their own learner subjectivities. For Thomas the garden is all about immersion in the plants, the harvest, the cooking and weeding, making mistakes and learning. Jennie best described the artistic student as one of those students ‘who are incredibly artistic and their focus is the beauty and the form'. Neither student adheres to any particular sense of learner uniformity, nor is there any expectation from Jennie for students to do so. She is open and encouraging of whatever it is students bring to the garden, and she is able to gauge this through her interpretation of the garden journals where students express personal and individual meanings of the garden experience.

These openings for difference and flexibility are an intrinsic element of the garden pedagogies employed by Jennie, who allows students a sense of freedom where they can participate in both individual and collective ways. Unlike the classroom, the garden is not a place of competition but rather a space for creativity, innovation and fun.

I think because what happens when kids come out into the garden there's no sense of 'you've planted that better than me or yours is growing better than mine, you're getting a better mark or you're better at this than me', it's equal. There's no judging, it's nobody's zucchini plant. It belongs to the whole school.

The notion of belonging to the garden was another important dimension of learning expressed by students. Individually, four children cited the 'leaf pit' activity as a gardening highlight. In this activity a large hole had been dug in the ground off to the side of the garden where children deposited deciduous leaves collected by them throughout the latter part of autumn. Each week children added horse and chicken manure, more leaves, until the pile was covered over with a piece of carpet, left to decompose and unearthed in spring some months later.

We planted seedlings and last week the whole class dug up leaves from the leaf pit and we're starting to put new leaves in. We used wheelbarrows and rakes and put the leaves in the wheelbarrow [then] we put horse poo and the leaves rot down over months. The worms eat them. Then we put the leaves on the garden to help the garden. Last week we had an activity how we had to have buckets and we passed them along, passed them along and along, and the last one would empty it and we spread it out and it was really fun.

The 'leaf pit' activity epitomises how children like to learn in the garden: alongside one another, through physical work that is fun and which benefits the garden.

 
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