Can children create a permaculture design?

This was the question put forward to me back in Brazil in 2007. Can children create a permaculture design? My answer was, but of course!  Teachers from various public schools in Pirenopolis, Goais invited the NGO – Ecocentro IPEC, in which I am involved, to implement a program that would support students to re-design their public school grounds and create a nature classroom.  Teachers also requested support in building a curriculum for the permaculture classroom.

Design

So the process began. Students were given a five day introduction course to Permaculture Design highlighting zone one, two and five. Permaculture principles provide a direction to develop the ethics of caring for the planet, people, and resource sharing. If you use the imagination, observe the natural system and work with nature, you will discover design is a natural process for children.

children designing their future playground permaculture
This is one of the areas that students wanted to re-design.

Students dreamed, brainstormed, designed. They decided that it was a good idea to make mini habitats as a way of working towards a sustainable school.

It was concluded by the action research group that if a permaculture outdoor classroom was to be effective, it would need to link real science practice with the needs and interests of the students. The construction of ecological habitats in a permaculture classroom is a profound concept in the universe of educational pedagogy. In my schooling time, we considered the library an essential tool for students, today its the computer lab. Most educators can’t imagine school without it. Yet with climate change on the agenda, many educators recognize that nature can teach important lessons. In the 21st century this kind of knowledge is just as important as reading and computer science. It’s becoming a basic need of education, understanding how your natural environment works, not just in theory but in practice.

Permaculture design
Permaculture design

When it comes to climate change, as responsible educators, we don’t want to scare students or indoctrinate learners; we don’t want their environmental responsibility to be emotion-based.  Rather we are interested in developing individuals with sound problem solving and decision making skills (1).

Benefits

Many studies have already shown the benefits of active learning in the environment. Self-esteem and good attitudes toward schooling improve when students participate in habitat-based learning experiences (2). Improving students’ social and behavioral skills is the most important achievement reported by teachers. Bully decreases. Habitat-based learning experiences have a positive impact on children’s understanding of important scientific concepts and their investigative techniques, as there is a significant improvement in their attitude towards the environment (3).

Challenges

Coming from Australia, I found Brazilian schools curious. Most public schools are ‘shared’ classrooms, yes actually classrooms. Meaning, the first school session (usually lower primary) is from 7am to 11am. The teachers have a break. The second school session (usually middle primary) is from 1pm to 5pm. They use the same classroom. Teachers have a break. Some schools will start an evening session (usually highschool) and this goes from  7pm to 11pm. So our challenge was – how do we encourage all the students to “own” the permaculture classroom considering the classroom was shared by various age groups.

Participation

It was hypothesised that if all students were encouraged to participate in the creation of the permaculture classroom, maybe then it would be cared for by all the children from different age groups. It didn’t matter if some of the students didn’t want to get their hands ‘dirty’ with soil. There were so many jobs. From mosaic to painting to planting to writing poems and songs. It was an intense moment and at times we had 200 children in a small space creating magic.

Curriculum

Some of the teachers participated in the process. Some teachers were just curious observers and some teachers turned away and shook their heads. What we found is that we were able to ‘win’ most of the teachers support through curriculum development. It has been concluded from studies (4) that when a curriculum does not include a process of transforming abstract content into practical content, science remains out of reach for most students and teachers can feel frustrated.

Children as designers – The before and after photos show an incredible difference. Superadobe park benches, herb spiral, zone 5 area for butterflies, water element for local frogs, study tables that doubled up as lunch tables.

Science and environmental education often suggests non-humanistic, objective, purely rational, empirical, universal and socially sterile values. Research suggests that such concepts have implications for public opinion about the environment, as school experiences are responsible for shaping the concepts that the person will take for the rest of his or her life. With this in mind, the action research group created a curriculum that involved new ways of seeing the world and new methods of action within the science and environment curriculum. Having access to the outdoor classroom helped put into practice the concepts learned in theory and maked learning literally more vivid.

Ten years on

Most of the permaculture outdoor classrooms that we created in the pilot program were flattened to make more closed classrooms due to expansion of the local population. Even so, a generation of children experienced an outdoor classroom. Our efforts received nationwide news coverage. Several awards were won and the result was curriculum policy changes at a national level. There is now a nationwide program called ‘Sustainable  School.’

Many of the students who are now young adults reported that they had a chance to feel useful and connected to others whilst in learning in the habitat, and some even developed skills for the job market. In hindsight, children are great designers img695_limpo

References

  1. Volk T L (1990) the importance of learners doing the research, in Environmental Communicator, p.7.
  2. Skelly, S.M., and J.M. Zajicek. 1997. The effect an interdisciplinary garden program, on the environmental attitudes of elementary school students. HortTechnology 8:579-583.
  3. Sterling, S. (2001) Towards sustainable education. In Sustainable education: revisioning learning and change, Foxhole: Green Books Ltd.
  4. Aikenhead, G. (2006) Science Education for Everday Life. New York Teachers’ College Press