GROWTH IN THE PLAYGROUND

GARDENING: Lessons are very firmly outdoors for the pupils of an east London primary school. Hester Lacey unearthed germination as well as multiplication on their curriculum
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The Independent Culture
IN ONE of the pleasant, airy classrooms at Bigland Green Primary School in Shadwell, east London, half-a-dozen year three pupils were enthusiastically making an unholy mess and the carpet was suffering. Up to their elbows in compost, they were planting seed potatoes and peas in pots, helped by horticulturalist and sculptor Rory McNally. These will be germinated in the classroom, and the children will plant them out later in the year under cloches in the school allotments; all part of a master plan devised by landscape gardening company Theories at the Bottom of the Garden. Theories, founded by John Alderson and Jerry Cooper, has been running for 15 years. The company specialises in mixing landscape and play, and 90 per cent of its work is in inner city schools where many of the children have no access to a garden at home.

Meanwhile, out by the pond, tucked away at the side of the school, another group were preparing to put out the water plants - iris, forget-me-not, carex, and watermint. Stuart Croft, Theories's conservation specialist, gave a brief talk about plants and how they oxygenate the water. Some of the references to invertebrates were met with blank looks, but when he brandished a ramshorn snail found in the pond, everybody's eyes lit up. Then it was time for the fun bit: dropping the pots in with a splash, or throwing in the spiky little "water soldiers"; small floating plants that stand rigidly to attention.

"I've chosen this plant because it has long leaves, but I think it'll grow even more. It might take a month to grow," said Runa, nine.

"My plant has lots of leaves; they will grow and fishes and snails will have more oxygen," said Zumman, eight.

Juned, nine, doesn't like helping in the garden at home but it's different at school. "I like plants and flowers, and bumble bees," he said enthusiastically. "The flowers will grow in the summer."

The piece de resistance, however, is at the front of the school, in the main playground. Originally a grassed area, hot summers and heavy use had left it bald and dusty. Now it has been transformed. At one end, a circular seat with child-sized benches in is roofed with trellis; when the honeysuckle grows up over the top it will be a green room. The trellis supports are decorated with ceramic sculptures painted by the children. In the middle, another circular area with seats is floored with tiles decorated in the classrooms. To the other end, the supports are in place for a shelter to be roofed with living willow; the children have already installed the plants that will live in the borders.

Theories has been working in Big-land Green school for two years now. Schools' funding for this kind of project tends to be erratic, so the designers try to draw up plans that can be completed in easily-managed stages; they have a scheme in another school that they have been working on for a decade. "Our brief was to take an unusable patch of playground and bring it back to use, with the help of the children in planting and designing," says John Alderson, formerly a teacher himself. The Theories team also dug out the allotment beds; one future project is to renovate the "natural" garden, which is currently more wild than natural. "The whole basis of what we do is promoting ownership of their own spaces," explains John Alderson. "If they have direct input they care a lot more. And as an educational resource, a garden is as good as books and videos, if not better."

Headmistress Jill Hankey agrees, and points to the school's science results, where their SAT are well above the national average. "Science is an area our school has been really successful in," she says proudly. "The science curriculum is a two-year rolling programme, so every two years at least classes are involved in studying living processes. There is a lot we can and do use. For most of our children, English is not their first language, so they struggle with language-based subjects. Science is a good area for bilingual children, and our results are great for both staff and kids."

Initially, the project was funded by the St Katharine's and Shadwell Trust, which finances community projects in the area. "The staff discussed what we could do, and we wanted a design project for the children that was real and that they could follow through to the end," explains Mrs Hankey. "The children did a big project, using cutouts and collages, to make 3-D models, and John incorporated some of their ideas into his structure. Then they worked on the ceramics for the garden, then on the planting. The year three children will have seen the whole thing through from nothing." The work, she says, has been phased in "in little packages, because we have never known if we would be able to afford to move on to the next stage. So we have had to work in manageable little pockets".

And, she adds, as well as the educational benefits, the renovated garden is now a much more pleasant environment to look at and use. "Many of our children come from overcrowded flats. The school was built on the only green space in the area - on what was Bigland Green. It was essential, because eight years ago there were 200 children here with no school places, but it does now mean that the nearest park is across the other side of a busy highway."

She is looking forward to the planting of the willow dome. "Stuff the Millen-nium Dome, we've got our own!"

! Theories At The Bottom Of The Garden can be contacted on 0171 254 7282

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