Blog: School gardens are a sanctuary for young people

11 May 2022
Emma Myers works for School Food Matters as a school gardener two days a week and spends the other three workdays as a paediatric occupational therapist for the NHS.

As a gardener, she visits primary and secondary schools all across London, teaching as well as inspiring young people to grow and harvest fruit and veg in their shared garden.

Emma, who has a degree in occupational therapy and a postgraduate in social therapeutic horticulture, knows all about the impact gardening and connecting with nature can have in improving young people’s mental health. And in her work with School Food Matters, she sees these benefits first-hand every week.

So, for Mental Health Awareness Week, we decided to speak to Emma about gardening as a tool for promoting well-being.

Tell us about your work as a school gardener with School Food Matters.

I'm working on two SFM projects. The first is Know your Onions, and for that I go into different secondary schools to help them establish a food growing space, as they might be new to it or haven’t grown anything for a while. I go in during the early part of the growing season, bringing loads of seeds and getting the plot ready.

The other project I'm doing with SFM is Young Marketeers. Here, I visit primary schools during the middle of the growing season, helping them solve problems and understand why some plants might not be thriving. So maybe they've been planted in a location that doesn't work well or it might be that the soil isn’t deep enough for the carrots to grow properly.

What do the students grow during your sessions?

The world. We’ve been planting things like broad beans, tomatoes, carrots, beetroot, chard, onions, courgettes and herbs like chives and dill. I like going to schools with a range of options, and letting the young people decide what to grow. It might be that it’s something they like the flavour of or that they want to try something new. Or they really like the name. We’ve grown purple dragon carrots, for example.

It’s about trying to key into their interest and motivation. Because once they've got ownership of something, they’re going to be more inclined to water it and look after it

  • Emma leading school gardening session
    Emma leading school gardening session
  • Emma leading school gardening session
    Emma leading school gardening session
  • Emma leading school gardening session
    Emma leading school gardening session
  • Emma leading school gardening session
    Emma leading school gardening session

Studies have shown gardening and food growing improves people’s mood and helps in dealing with stress, depression and anxiety. Do you see this impact in your work with school children?

Absolutely. Gardens are a space for children to interact and have conversations. The topics are open - it might be that they want to talk about stresses and strains. It just frees them to express themselves. Communication is part of how we manage our mental well-being.

Young people have also told me that they really like the sessions because they're not stressful. They say it’s really different to class, because in class there’s often an expectation to write a certain amount or participate in an assessment, whereas here, they can do as much or as little as they want. The learning is very self-directed and informal. They're getting to choose the pace and activity that they want to do.

Without fail, after every session, at least one student tells me it has been really relaxing and therapeutic. But you can also just see the happiness on young people’s faces when they’re in the garden. They look relaxed and like they’re having fun when they’re playing games, joking and messing around. The desire for play is innate. I visited a special needs school where the kids were having the best time spraying the plants and even each other with water. The garden is a playground.

What is it about being outside in a garden that has this positive impact?

Young people enjoy being outside all day, and they’re not actually that bothered about what the weather's been like. They get to grow veg, take in nature, look at the birds and bugs and spend time outside doing something physical. And we know that there’s a psychosomatic link between physical exercise and mental well-being.

Students can also go into their school garden during breaks, for instance. If you've got lots of worries, stresses and strains, having an opportunity to do something peaceful like just sitting in a garden is very important for well-being. Or they might want to do a bit of weeding or watering plants, which provides a sense of calm.

You can participate in gardening without touching a blade of grass - just by sitting in the garden. I went to a school that had a child with complex needs. They couldn’t do the activity the class was doing, but they were participating by smelling the herbs, looking at the plant, and experiencing the outdoors. And that is the magic of it.

Can gardening/growing play a role in helping children who are still dealing with the mental health impact of Covid?

We're certainly still seeing the impact of the pandemic and will continue to for a while, because it’s been such a massive shift in our lives, and we’ll have to go through a huge readjustment. For young people, spending large amounts of time indoors, without being able to socially interact with their peers has been really difficult. We know that that's not healthy and impacts their social and physical development.

The good thing is, working in a garden allows them to explore and improve their physical strength, as well as mental well-being and social skills.

Young people who've had a bit of a topsy turvy couple of years are now especially keen to be doing these gardening sessions. They want to be outside and taking part in fun activities.

Are there any barriers to all children being able to experience gardening at school?

I don't think so. Because you can put a seed in a pot on a windowsill, watch a vegetable grow and then eat it. You can keep it simple. Some of the schools I go to have polytunnels, raised beds and they're all singing all dancing. And other schools are just getting started. All you need are some seeds, a little bit of time and enthusiasm, and you can get growing.

Find out more about our Know your Onions and Young Marketeers programmes as well as our School Garden Grants, which fund schools to transform outdoor spaces into thriving fruit and veg gardens. Better yet, subscribe to School Food Matters updates and never miss a thing.