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Gardens, learning and fun – a winning formula!

Volume 7 Number 1 - April 2010

Carla Thomas-Buffin

French: Jardins, apprentissage et amusement - une formule qui marche!

Spanish: Jardines, aprendiendo y divirtiéndose – ¡una formula ganadora!

The Children’s Education Garden at the UK’s Sir Harold Hillier Gardens is a highly regarded learning resource for high school and post-16 students. Carla Thomas-Buffin  describes how weekly visits enable a broad spectrum of young people, including many with special educational needs, to acquire horticultural skills and contribute to the development and maintenance of the garden. 

At Sir Harold Hillier Gardens, students participate in woodland management, have allotments and a fruit cage, and keep journals of their work.  Previously they designed and installed art features in the Education Garden.  Although we do not have a formal assessment programme at the Gardens, we liaise with schools and colleges to ensure that tasks are relevant to coursework.

The Sir Harold Hillier Gardens

The former estate of the late nurseryman Sir Harold Hillier, the Gardens are in the south of England and contain an important collection of hardy trees and shrubs over 180 acres.  A charitable trust since 1976, the Gardens are managed and financed by Hampshire County Council.  The Education Service started working with local schools soon after the Children’s Education Garden was established and this became more formalized in 1988 with the appointment of our first Education Officer. 

The Gardens’ Education Service is small but busy, last year working with nearly 15,000 schoolchildren, colleges and universities, as well as families.  The Community Education Project is a natural extension of our work, seeking to reach and engage people who might otherwise find visiting the Gardens difficult.  Education Officers have worked on and off-site in nursing homes, schools and with special needs groups, often integrating generations through shared tasks and an enthusiastic enjoyment of the outdoors.  This Community Education Programme was funded in part by a three-year grant from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, an organization particularly interested in charities that operate ‘in the cultural life of the UK, education and learning, the natural environment and enabling disadvantaged people to participate more fully in society’ (

Although we would have liked to continue our outreach work after the grant finished, it was not something the Gardens could afford.  So we were delighted to receive support from the Equitable Charitable Trust for our on-site work with young people. The Trust ‘makes grants towards projects for children and young people under the age of 25 who are from disadvantaged backgrounds or disabled'  (

Our Youth Community Education Programme is aimed at students with special needs, whether physical, educational or because of socio-economic deprivation.  Schools pay £85 per day, for up to eight students.  Support staff or teachers must accompany the group.  Most, although not all, of this work is focused on work related learning, helping students obtain essential life skills, as well as horticultural skills.

Work related learning

Usually, I work all day with one school, but on Wednesdays I have one in the morning, one in the afternoon, always a little tricky and today, cold and rainy, was no exception: two very different groups with very different needs.

The morning finds me with year-10 students (aged 14–15).  I am working with the school to introduce WJEC (Welsh examination award body) Entry Level Land Studies into their coursework. This qualification is especially good for students with special needs who are not expected to leave school with GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education) and is intended to provide a wide range of practical experience in the care, management and study of plants, animals, farms, gardens, and associated crafts and hobbies. This year every student in year 10 will come to the gardens in three 3–5 week rotations with a very tight horticulture curriculum. Assessment is 80 per cent by the teacher, the remainder through final examination. The school would like every student to sit the final exam, but as the programme is actually designed for post-16-year-olds, the timings do not suit the secondary school academic year, so students may need to take two years to do so.

The afternoon finds me with a group of post-16 students on a more relaxed Essential Skills college course.  The youngsters are gaining experience in a workplace environment.  My first job is to convince them to go outside, in not-so-cool wellington boots and wet weather gear – some are more enthusiastic than others. 

Many of these kids lead difficult lives, without good support at home.  Some have been abused.  They often resent or feel limited by their disabilities.  And they arrive at class displaying anger, stubbornness, selfishness, and ‘attitude’ combined with low self-esteem and lack of confidence.  My job is to make them all feel welcome, valued, listened to and part of a team.

So it’s not just about horticulture, gardening or science.  It’s more holistic as I aim to encourage, enthuse, motivate as well as teach.  I try to hit all the clichés:  set clear boundaries and goals, keep promises, mix work with play, try to be firm but fair. When a teacher says we’ve got students who come to our garden scheme but won’t go to school, then I know we just might have tickled an interest in the future.

When a student looks at me with a rather embarrassed, nervous smile, and says, in front of his sodden and exhausted classmates, that we’ve got to remove the pond liner again because he doesn’t think it will be right or level if we don’t, then I know he cares and takes pride in his work. When an autistic student who wouldn’t make eye contact or talk approaches a colleague to says he’s just had the best day ever, then I know working together to build a snowman will be a lasting memory.

It helps to remain calm when, as occasionally happens, I find myself watching students intentionally sabotaging their own work.  So many of them have been told their work is rubbish or below standard, that they feel it’s better not to try or care.  To keep destruction to a minimum, I make sure students can see that they are working with professional materials, making it obvious that I trust them to produce good results.  I keep tasks simple until their confidence improves, building on success.

It helps to laugh while we learn.  Many of these students don’t go outdoors often and enjoy the freedom our space can offer.  Charlie, who says his younger siblings would rather watch telly or play computer games, wrote, ‘I enjoy walking around the Gardens and the air is so calm . . . I will give today ten stars’, following his first visit.  He is applying for a work experience placement here in the summer. 

Students learn that a positive attitude, along with acquired skills, can lead to more opportunities.  The work related learning programme has been running long enough now for us to have seen students finish their time here and go on to further education at local colleges, and we enjoy hearing positive news from them.  Gardens, learning and fun – isn’t that the formula for a great life?


Trois collèges et deux instituts pour les plus de 16 ans visitent les Jardins Sir Harold Hillier par semaine pendant l'année scolaire. Les étudiants reçoivent une formation horticole et participent activement  à la maintenance et au développement du Jardin Educatif des Enfants. Ils participent aussi à la gestion des forêts, ont des parcelles à cultiver et une cage à fruits, et ils tiennent un journal de leur travail. Pour varier les plaisirs, les étudiants ont conçu, complété et installé des créations artistiques dans le Jardin Educatif des Enfants. Bien que nous n'ayons pas un programme d'évaluation formel, nous sommes en contact avec chaque école et collège pour nous assurer que chaque tâche entreprise a trait au cours.


Tres escuelas secundarias y dos colegios de educación post-16 años acudieron durante los fines de semana del año escolar académico a los Jardines Sir Harold Hillier. Durante estas visitas recibieron entrenamiento en tareas de horticultura y contribuyeron activamente al mantenimiento y desarrollo de las educación de niños del Jardín. Además de participar en el manejo del bosque, tuvieron un huerto y una área enjaulada de frutas, también elaboraron un diario del trabajo.  Para hacer variada su tarea, los estudiantes diseñaron, completaron e instalaron aspectos artísticos en el programa de educación orientado a los niños.  A pesar de que no hay una documento de evaluación formal,  los jardines se encuentran en estrecha comunicación con las escuelas y colegios para asegurarse que las tareas realizadas sean relevantes a los cursos que los estudiantes están cursando.

Carla Thomas-Buffin
Education Officer
Sir Harold Hillier Gardens
Jermyn Lane
Ampfield Nr. Romsey
Hampshire SO51 0QA