Since a very early age, today’s children live with the idea that the world they will inherit will be worse than the one we know. How will we teach environmental education to future generations if our own generation apparently has not learned and failed to act? We tested the pedagogical potential of Syntropic Agriculture and the result you can see below:
There were four school gardens, more than 50 children involved (7 to 10-year-old), and many learnings during that first year of daily activities. We now want to share with you our impressions and reflections. With such an exchange, we hope to accelerate the long road of improvement that we certainly have ahead.
HOW DO WE DO OUR SYNTROPIC GARDENS IN SCHOOLS?
Research on the implementation of environmental education in primary schools suggests that one of the main reasons for the limited success of such initiatives is related to the low ecological literacy of environmental educators themselves.
With that in mind, we have developed this project relying on Syntropic Agriculture as both a technical and a philosophical basis to promote Ecological Literacy. Therefore, we had at our disposal all the theoretical framework and syntagms of Syntropic Agriculture, which guided our actions in the translation of natural processes into farming and vice-versa. The central objective of our Syntropic-School-Gardens is to create an informal learning environment in which it is possible:
• to develop practical skills (manual skills and agroecological planting techniques);
• to foster the understanding of nature’s dynamics (basic knowledge of biology and interpretation of ecosystems);
• to encourage the learning about how to coexist and care for others (emotional and social skills that involve empathy, biophilia, and the sense of belonging).
The activities are mostly practical and range from soil preparation, planting, maintenance and harvesting. In this path, children can experiment with the principles of ecology in a living laboratory, and they are also invited to exercise critical thinking about their role in the ecosystem.
The planning of the Syntropic-School-Gardens took into account the specific conditions of each site: edaphic characteristics, pre-existing species, terrain, etc. In schools where there was already something planted (flowers, herbs, etc.), we tried to integrate those species into the design, with the involvement of teachers and assistants who, often informally, already took care of those plants. So, to implement the gardens, we considered technical and agronomic aspects as well as the personal relations of respect and sharing within the school environment. Because a garden at school only makes sense if the people who were already there feel invited to interact and to appropriate the space.
In the example of the sketch, the design and management proposal benefited the development of existing olive trees. Also, the initial conditions of this area (mono-species on low fertility land) set a very representative example of the region’s many backyards and public spaces. Therefore, the results we saw there could provide information for actions in other spheres of the municipality.
SCHOOL CURRICULUM ADAPTATION TO CLIMATE CHANGE
It is already a burden for us adults to face the daily environmental news. Catastrophic events and extreme climate projections can even cause mental health crisis. It’s understandable. We foresee a future of unparalleled instability. Now, imagine what this could mean to a child who sees his/her future at risk? What do they feel? They feel angry. Yes, anger was one of the most recurring reactions identified in research about what younger people think about what is happening to our planet. It’s also understandable. Children, to some extent, are less subjugated than adults to the lethargy of modern life that imprisons us in the logic of survival-consumption-compensation, and this seems to make them see more clearly the inconsistencies between speech and real actions.
These children will demand much more from us. And it’s good they do that.
Awareness is no longer enough. We need to devise a new education that can instrumentalize intentions and, above all, stimulate this new generation to create other possible futures. We owe it to them.
Agriculture is precisely the social space in which the fundamental relations between human beings and nature get materialized. From the standpoint of Syntropic Agriculture, there is no conflict between meeting human needs and maintaining the natural systems on which services we are dependent. This understanding is behind all our interventions and sustains the solutions we present through playful activities in our gardens.
RESPONSIBILITY AND CONNECTION – All major interventions had the participation of the children. Since the very beginning, they created a bond with the area. Each plant inspired a sense of responsibility. (Mina de São Domingos School – Dec/2018).
SUCCESSION AND COOPERATION – The vegetable consortium is one of the first visible lessons of the logic of species succession that supports Syntropic Agriculture and puts into practice the idea of regeneration by use. Around the 3rd month of the project, it was possible to observe the development of lettuces, broccoli, kale, onion and garlic — all of them growing in the same “nest” as the tree and shrub species. Children realize, in real practice, that there is no competition when we synchronize species with different life cycles, and non-overlapping tree-top architectures. (Mina de São Domingos School – Feb/2019).
ACTION AND REFLECTION – The interdependency seen in natural systems helps them understand the value of the differences. We bring these principles and their implications in human relations during collective talks at the end of each activity. (Mina de São Domingos School – Mar/2019).
FIRST HARVESTS – The harvest is the reward of caring and responsibility. The photo shows the celebration of the day when they harvested the first lettuces. The subsequent learning was related to the independence from irrigation throughout the winter, the resilience of the garden that overcame two frost episodes, the time each plant requires, as well as sharing, celebrating, and feeling the satisfaction of bringing home a food cultivated by themselves. (Mina de São Domingos School – Feb/2019).
COMMITMENT – We observed that children’s involvement with the garden increased gradually. While it took a lot of effort to initially get everyone involved in the activities, after a couple of months, it only needed a general orientation. The kids already knew what to do and wanted to interact with the garden. (Mina de São Domingos School – May/2019).
AUTONOMY – By their own initiative, the children prune the grass and feed the nests with organic matter. They gradually understood many of the maintenance practices. Their autonomy was one of the subtle indicators of this project’s impact. (São Miguel do Pinheiro School – May/2019).
DIVERSIFIED HARVEST – In terms of eating habits, we tried to find a balance between tradition and innovation. We grew, at the same time, unusual food plants with important ecosystemic functions and species that are already part of their daily menu. However, we planted these same species in a completely different context. Potatoes, for example, have a strong presence in local cuisine. Its cultivation imposes a challenge for organic production in small orchards as it is considered to be a low-return crop that occupies a lot of space. In the Syntropic-School-Gardens we present an alternative, taking advantage of a zone not generally used in the orchards: the surroundings of the existing trees. (Mina de São Domingos School – May/2019).
IDENTITY – The harvest of the potatoes had a very positive effect on the whole school community. (Santana de Cambas School – May/2019).
CELEBRATION – We were surprised by a lunch made with the harvest of the garden. This event was, undoubtedly, one of the highlights of this project and a great reward. It’s an extraordinary moment, where everyone in the school expresses their pride and satisfaction for harvesting their own food. Only after we experience this mutual respect, in a relationship built on honesty, it seems to make sense to start a conversation about other possible eating habits. (São Miguel do Pinheiro School – May/2019).
ENGAGEMENT – The pedagogical potential of this project goes beyond the boundaries of producing food. Farming in a way that respects nature has consequences in understanding our ecological responsibility as a global society. One example was the involvement of the students in the “Climate Strike”, inspired by the young environmental activist Greta Thunberg (All schools – Mar/2019).
LIVING SCIENCE – Simple science experiments can place soil erosion at the center of the debate. In a territory facing the risks of desertification, children were able to see the difference in water dynamics over bare soil and covered with vegetation. After that, they were invited to think about the impact of the rain on an exposed hill we could see nearby. (Mina de São Domingos School – Feb/2019).
INTERDISCIPLINARITY – With the support of the teachers, the garden reached the classrooms to subsidize different activities: writing (report of the garden); mathematics (plant height measurements); artistic expressions (garden drawings); besides, of course, environmental studies (different types of leaves; seasons; etc). (Santana de Cambas School – Feb/2019).
TASTING CHALLENGE – With closed eyes, children had to differentiate broccoli from cabbages. The playful activity made many of them try these vegetables for the very first time.
AFFECTION – The initiative to decorate the garden (painted stones, scarecrow, etc.) came spontaneously from the students, the teacher, and school assistants. Little acts of affection that prove that space has gained new meaning for everyone. (Santana of Cambas School – May/2019)
AWARD PRESENTATION – One of the consequences of the involvement of the teacher and assistants of Santana de Cambas School was the award-winning of that Syntropic School Garden in a National Sustainability Contest. (Matosinhos – May/2019).
SMALL FAMILY – Even in schools with few students, we saw engagement and harvests with pretty good results. (Algodor School – Jun/2019).
For years we have been working on communicating the concepts of syntropic agriculture to a vast audience. But we had never been challenged to translate these same concepts to children. What this experience has suggested to us is that harnessing the pedagogical potential of Syntropic Agriculture seems to be a promising path. Not as a normative solution, but as a powerful tool to foster autonomy, promote socialization and nurture this new generation with a creative force capable of inventing, discovering and conquering unimaginable futures.
This project is the result of a partnership between: Life in Syntropy, Câmara Municipal de Mértola, Agrupamento Escolas de Mértola, Juntas de Freguesia do Concelho de Mértola, Associação Terra Sintrópica, Somincor, Escola Profissional Alsud.