All over bar the sprouting
Harvesting the vegetables he has helped to plant, nurture and cultivate, Vlado Vasile, a Year Seven student at South Island School, declares: 'It is simply an amazing adventure that really makes you want to gasp.' In Hong Kong, where having a garden is often considered a luxury, Vlado, like many other children from 10 international and 10 local schools, has discovered the joys of horticulture and composting. That's thanks to Growing Together, a one-year pilot project initiated by the British Chamber of Commerce and sponsored by HSBC.
Since last October, using micro gardens - box containers made of recyclable materials - children of all ages have been growing produce ranging from tomatoes, carrots and herbs to Chinese water spinach and bak choy. Using a Japanese Bokashi composting system, students have also been learning about recycling food waste from leftover school lunches. The fertiliser is then used to nurture the vegetables.
'Our own organically grown vegetables taste really good and are much healthier than the vegetables that come from supermarkets,' says Anson Chan, a Chiu Yang Por Yen Primary School student. Ashley Wu, a Year Six student at Chiu Yang Por Yen, also appreciates the hands-on experience. 'This was my first time to be a little farmer,' he says proudly, adding he has also been learning various English words because the tutor gives gardening tips in English.
The mother of another student at the school says she was slightly bemused when her son and his classmates sang to their plants after their teacher said that some people believe plants respond to music.
Teachers who supervise the programme say the students enjoy the excitement and anticipation of waiting for their seeds to sprout. The initiative is a good way for children to learn how plants develop and what they need to survive.
They say the project triggers questions that satisfy children's curiosity, questions that are unlikely to be asked when their vegetables come from a supermarket.
Questions typically include, why do plants have roots and how do they work? Or, why do we have to water plants? Importantly, teachers note that gardening helps to teach students about healthy living and eating. Children are more willing to try new vegetables if they grow their own crops.
George Woodman, director at the Teng Hoi Conservation Organisation, which provides the Bokashi systems to participating schools, says that teachers, parents and students learn there is far more to do than simply planting a few seeds, harvesting them and giving them a stir in a hot wok.
'The Growing Together and composting project gives students a real connection with their environment. They discover where food comes from and, just as importantly, how to make use of leftover waste,' says Woodman, a former Hong Kong teacher. 'The great thing about Growing Together is the concept is suitable for children of all ages and abilities.'
At a time when Hong Kong's education system is looking for ways to provide students with broader-based learning perspectives, Woodman says the project fits comfortably within liberal arts studies. 'Students are learning how to cook their own vegetables, combining horticulture with media studies and learning about the history of food,' says Woodman, adding that they will carry what they learn about nutrition and fresh vegetables into adulthood.
But despite the positive response, the project is due to end in June. At the moment, according to the British Chamber of Commerce, while options are being reviewed, no firm plans have been made to continue with the scheme.
Jane Angwin, head of the Learning Support Centre at King George V School, says growing vegetables provides 'real world' examples and experiences for children with special needs.
Noting that while gardening can be an exciting and engaging activity for all children, Angwin says opportunities for hands-on learning through exploration, experimentation and nurturing can be particularly beneficial for children with special needs. 'Our students find the seed-to-plate experiences are not far short of magical,' she says.
In his groundbreaking book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv makes a case for the value of creating a connection with nature during childhood. He cites many positive benefits, as do University of Illinois researchers who conclude that children with attention deficit disorder (ADD) show a greater ability to focus after spending time in natural surroundings.
'Growing things not only takes children out of the classroom, but also enables children to connect with nature and each other in many different ways,' he says. 'The herbs and vegetables our students grow result in products they can be proud of and share with others for praise and recognition. For example, students sell their vegetables at school events and to family and friends to raise funds for charity.'
Angwin says gardening has added another dimension to her students' learning skills. 'Our students have become intrigued by Frances Hodgson Burnett's famous novel, The Secret Garden,' she says.
She says the garden has become such a prominent feature that students from other areas of the school use it as part of their arts programmes and theatrical performances.
Integrating the Growing Together project with other educational activities has also become part of the curriculum at South Island School, where students from the design and technology department have designed a wheelbarrow. Meanwhile, the school's IT department records progress reports and interviews with student gardeners.
The idea of incorporating the Growing Together project as an integral part of the educational curriculum is also being used at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hong Kong. 'Incorporating growing and composting into the biology curriculum allows students to understand how the ecosystem works and how materials can be recycled,' says principal Kevin Liang Kwun-fan. 'The Bokashi composting programme has taught our students how to produce organic fertiliser.
'They have also learned how turning food waste into fertiliser can help to reduce landfill waste and lower the levels of methane emissions produced by landfills.'
Meanwhile, micro gardening students at the Chiu Yang Por Yen Primary School have recorded their achievements by painting images of their plants and vegetables on the walls around the campus.
'We were particularly pleased with the fact that students can acquire real life skills and knowledge through hands-on experience that cannot be taught solely from a textbook,' says Lee Ying, the teacher who supervises the project.
In Britain, where the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) runs a similar gardening scheme involving about 12,000 schools, research indicates that children taking part in gardening activities can boost their development. Researchers at the National Foundation for Educational Research, who carried out a study on behalf of the RHS, say gardening encourages pupils to become more active in solving problems, as well as boosting literacy and numeracy skills.
The study of 1,300 teachers and 10 schools also revealed that, through gardening, students learn presentation skills, communication and teamwork. Research also indicated a boost in entrepreneurial aspirations. On a more basic level, children who develop an interest in gardening tend to embrace a healthier, more active lifestyle.
According to Dr Simon Thornton-Wood, director of science and learning at the RHS, research conclusions reveal that gardens enable a creative, flexible approach to teaching that has significant benefits. 'Schools that integrate gardens into the curriculum are developing children who are much more responsive to the challenges of adult life,' he says.
David Sanders from Green Patch, which supplies micro gardens to schools taking part in the Growing Together project, views children's involvement with gardening in a far more practical way. 'In these days of supermarkets and pre-packed food, it's fantastic for Hong Kong children to be able to grow their own vegetables,' he says.
Sanders and his wife Binglaw also provide horticulture tuition and advice to schools. When the couple lived in Britain, a horticultural programme they started was credited by local authorities for reducing vandalism and antisocial behaviour. 'Nurturing plants and vegetables achieves a lot more than the delight of growing things to eat. Gardening can be instrumental in encouraging a positive and healthy outlook on life,' Sanders says.
The sentiment is shared by Chiu Yang Por Yen Primary School student Edwin Li: 'I am happy to eat the produce we have harvested ourselves as it is delicious and safe to eat. We know exactly what has been used during the growing process.'
A similar opinion is held by Yip Kit-lam, mother of Paco Lam, a 5A student at the school. 'It is quite amazing to think that working together as a team, sowing, watering and weeding, these small seeds can build such bridges between students, teachers, parents and our surroundings,' she says.