Wauchope High School's food garden...a Special Needs Unit project that draws in the whole school.

Food for thought

Dinoo Kelleghan

When the Special Education Unit at Wauchope High started building a food garden with funding from the NSW Environmental Trust a world of discovery and team-building was created that went far beyond everyone’s expectations.

Now the Trust is offering additional funding in its Food Gardens in Schools program for projects involving children with special needs. In 2014, 18 grants are earmarked for schools working with special needs students in a total of 38 grants of $3500 to educate students on healthy sustainable living through growing and harvesting food in school gardens. In addition, 60 grants of $2500 are available under the Eco Schools program for environmental management projects.

The funding covers projects such as water and energy conservation, waste avoidance and reuse, outdoor learning areas, bush generation and habitat improvement, and bush tucker, sensory and food gardens.

Applications for all the grants close at 5pm on Friday May 16.

The Trust realised that while all children enjoy gardening the opportunity for hands-on learning in a garden especially helps children with special needs: “Gardens provide real-life examples and experiences that stimulate learning for students who might struggle in a conventional classroom environment.”

Garden activities could be adapted for various skill levels, and when the children are able to show off their garden produce and receive praise and recognition from the school for their efforts their confidence receives a real boost. In addition, there is happiness in the value of bonding and team-work inherent in collaborative gardening.

The Wauchope High School Special Needs Unit’s garden, begun in 2012, has become an outdoor space that all children can enjoy and work at together. Students with autism, intellectual disability, behavioural issues and other needs love spending time in the garden, which is also used by drama students as a performance space while mainstream students from years 7 and 8 have pitched in with construction work for the project.

The 24 special needs students celebrated their first harvest in 2013. A pen houses chickens that were hand-raised by the students who watched the eggs eagerly for 21 days until they hatched. Students were taken to a nearby farm to learn about organic farming and how to raise contented and healthy chickens.

Wauchope High’s Scott Spurway said: “For children with anxiety and mental health issues we found the garden to be a very calming environment. Children with autism and Down Syndrome are learning about responsibility and all the children are learning to work together as a team.”

New activities are helping the children learn about ecology and conservation. These include the collection of rainwater, recycling food scraps into compost and a little worm farm. All that goodness is helping the garden. Scott said the current choko crop has gone gangbusters.

In the United States, teachers at Eisenhower Middle School in New Jersey found that school gardening projects helped special education students feel connected to their peers — an experience realised at Wauchope High School where the food garden has become an important focal point of the school and school authorities say it is not unusual to see up to 60 children working in or relaxing in the garden during the lunch interval.

Educator Barbara Delaney at Eisenhower Middle School wrote that the garden gave the school’s special needs students “opportunities to share experiences with students and adults who are not part of our class, and this has led to new friendships and mutual understanding. The regular education students want to be included with our students and the special education students feel needed and valued”.

The US National Science Teachers Association says garden projects are “perfect” for addressing the need for science educators to “create lessons built on themes or big ideas” to help students with special needs be successful in the classroom. An article in the association’s magazine Science and Children by Professor Marcee Steele of the University of North Carolina says, “lessons based on themes help students with mild disabilities focus on a few important ideas rather than getting lost in numerous details.”

Applications for Eco Schools and Food Gardens in Schools projects grants can be obtained by calling the NSW Environmental Trust on (02) 8837 6073 or emailing info@environnmentaltrust.nsw.org.au.