Open-air education - learning in parks

A project in a Southend park shows how community growing in public spaces can work. Gavin McEwan reports.

Park-based lessons as local school children work on "cross-curricular" projects and can take their produce home - image: HW
Park-based lessons as local school children work on "cross-curricular" projects and can take their produce home - image: HW

Community involvement? Check. Education? Check. Sustainability? Check. Locally, grown produce? Check. This park-based project in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, apparently has it all, but in fact it came about largely by chance.

Chalkwell Park in the leafy west of the seaside town is home to Chalkwell Hall, a recently reconditioned Grade-II listed building leased to Metal, an arts group that hosts visiting artists and runs a range of creative events in the area. The group turned an under-used plot of ground in front of the hall into vegetable plots for its own and community use last year.

"Volunteers were thin on the ground, so we looked at using it in a different way," says local organic market gardener Ric Whitbrooke, who volunteers at the project. This year half the area has been given over to a nearby primary school to look after.

Chalkwell Hall Junior School teacher Loraine Beeck says: "We already had a gardening club in the school and grew potatoes in barrels but we have no room outdoors to grow things. Now we grow the seeds in class then plant them in the park.

"We already used the park for forest skills, which is a Scandinavian idea, as well as PE, and the children play in it and walk through it after school anyway."

Various plots

The school maintains two of the four plots, around a central bed that houses a 200-year-old olive tree. Metal retains one plot for its own use, while a fourth is tended by council staff as part of NVQ training delivered through an adult education college.

"There is competition between us," jokes Whitbrooke, adding that this means there is a regular pool of knowledge and supervision for children and teachers to access. "Fruit and vegetable growing has missed our generation, but this gets the parents involved too, even donating plants," he says.

Beeck adds: "We are filling a gap. Most parents don't know much about growing." She adds that overseeing the children's gardening work is not always easy for teachers.

"It can be hard to contain a group of children - they all want to do everything all at once. One will plant something and then another will pull it out, thinking it's a weed. Ten children is probably the maximum you can have working at once. If you have a class of 30, you have to make sure the others aren't climbing trees, but they could be sketching or having stories."

Beeck describes the park-based lessons as "very cross-curricular". She explains: "The children have measured the amount of water they have used on the plants and learned to send pictures of the plot to our partner school in Nice."

Children will get to take home the crops they harvest, but fellow teacher Lyn Maddison suggests: "A cookery club in the school could be a spin-off." Produce from Metal's plot goes into shared meals in the hall.

Plants for the real world

A recurring worry when the subject of food growing in public spaces is mentioned is the security aspect - particularly where the site is publicly accessible 24 hours a day. "You can expect some vandalism, but that is going down," says Whitbrooke.

Metal's project and finance manager Grace Acton adds: "We had lots of tomatoes last year, and some got played with. But there was still enough to keep us going most of the summer."

Chalkwell Hall puts an emphasis on sustainability and environmental friendliness, and that continues in the vegetable plot. "Generally you can't spray pesticides in a public area, and then there's the paperwork," says Whitbrooke. "Cabbage whites were a problem last year but we removed them by hand. We also use mesh to prevent bird damage."

Beeck adds: "We have lost some cabbages to snails, but that then set off a discussion of food chains." She sees the school's involvement continuing, but she has also been learning from the experience so far. "It's been a bit ad hoc this year. I think it does need more careful planning. From September, we'll be incorporating it more into the curriculum."

Plans are also being discussed to give the inner ring over to herbs, and to train grapes up the surrounding verandah, Whitbrooke adds: "This could be rolled out to other parks, which could learn from what we have done here."

The borough's parks management officer Ian Brown is a little more cautious. "We saw it as an opportunity to give people hands-on experience, though we are still refining it," he says.

"It continues to develop organically. We have something that changes, and involves a lot more people. Every park has its own identity and its own users. This project is right for here and now, but it wouldn't necessarily work anywhere - it's not a case of 'one size fits all'."

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