The garden project: The Patch Primary School

Historically home to the Wurundjeri people, the Dandenong Ranges are a set of low mountains covered in thick temperate rainforest in the outer suburbs 40km south east of Melbourne. The Patch hamlet is one of many small mountain townships in the ranges that support an alternative sociocultural demographic and is nestled between productive farmland and towering mountain ash forests. With a population of approximately 350 students The Patch School is highly regarded for its emphasis on progressive teaching and learning practices that promote critical and independent thinking. For the past two decades the school has built a strong reputation for its environmental education curriculum and its inclusion of disciplines such as philosophy, ecology and conservation that are taught across all ages and grades. Geographically the school is situated on a sloping 4.8 hectare property and is surrounded by tall eucalypts and long-standing deciduous oak and maple trees. The school grounds are home to a number of significant ecological sites including a forested creek, wetland and more recently an extensive edible and ornamental garden, frog pond, poultry sheds and ecological classroom, all of which are utilised as teaching and learning sites in the current environmental education programme. The school's commitment to values of respect and fairness are an embedded dimension of the school's overall philosophy as articulated by the school principal.

I think respect is probably the most important thing that you can bring to the school. I've been very keen right from day one to say at The Patch School we respect and love each other and that's how you treat everybody. So there's never any question. You treat people how you like to be treated yourself and my job is just to have faith in people to see that they can do things.

I made contact with the school during a 10-week gardening course for primary and secondary teachers at the University of Melbourne in 2007. The inaugural garden programme had been established in response to the increasing number of teachers responsible for developing school garden programmes, with the intention of equipping them with basic gardening knowledge and skills. During the course I met the art teacher Sonia from The Patch School who suggested I visit the school to observe the early stages of a garden project initiated by the school's environmental teacher Michelle Rayner. In an attempt to broaden the school's environmental and sustainability curriculum, Michelle was leading environmental education curriculum renewal that included the construction of a new ecological classroom and extensive food/ornamental gardens in an unused section of the school ground. Embedded within the garden project brief was a proposed curriculum framework that would enable children to design, build and inhabit the new garden as part of their weekly environmental and gardening education studies. After receiving initial approval from the principal, a working group including the environmental education teacher, principal and other school representatives, parents and members from the broader community was established to guide the project's strategic direction.

Although the garden project would share several overarching principles, one of the key objectives was to maintain proper and inclusive consultation with all stakeholders, including students, teachers and the wider community through collaborative and review processes. Cognisant of 'how gardening projects of this nature often fail' the principal recognised the importance of 'unhurried and inclusive' approaches that honoured the slow evolution of the project through children's ongoing and authentic participation. In comparison to other garden projects that are often developed by adults on behalf of children through rushed decision making and adult agendas, this project placed emphasis on taking time at every stage of development:

I think [many gardening projects] seek a finished product too quickly and that everything you need to do to make a garden project work involves a real lot of learning for the kids too. You can't just give children a plain sheet of paper and say 'plan a garden' because that's unrealistic. So everything about surveying the land and all that stuff, we used. There was learning for the children right through the process. Very much more for process than product. You need to focus on the process very strongly. A lot of our philosophy is about getting children to work together and about relationships because that's what we need for later in life, cooperation, and that's what this program is, working in groups, working as a little team with someone you don't necessarily know, thinking and being considerate, having responsibility.

(Principal, The Patch School)

These early iterations of the gardening project including its underlying philosophies illustrate the potential effectiveness of having a leadership team and principal involved in its inception and evolution. By incorporating themes of food, natural sciences, sustainability and horticulture in conjunction with key questions that shaped the inquiry: 'what will learning look and feel like in the new garden', 'what is here and what is possible here' (Sobel, 1998), students began an 18-month process of garden-based research and investigation that focused on collecting and collating new information to inform the design and construction of the new garden.

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