Helping the mental health of school children

Mike from Trees for Cities delves into the research showing the difference that food growing can make to the mental health of children and young people.

Garden Organic at Wimbledon Chase Primary School

Mental health and well being are topics that have gained increased attention over the past few years, particularly in relation to children. Perhaps it’s due to the rise in mental health problems among young people.

According to researchers, the proportion of children and young people reporting mental health issues has grown six times in England in just two decades.

The Mental Health Foundation recommend a number of ways to help keep our schoolchildren healthy. Suggestions include ‘eating a balanced diet and getting regular exercise’, ‘having time and freedom to play, indoors and outdoors’, and ‘going to a school that looks after the well being of all its pupils’.

All of these factors of course resonate with what we at Edible Playgrounds and, the Food Growing Schools: London partnership, aim to achieve: using food growing to help develop healthy habits in children and get them excited about fruit and vegetables.

And there’s a large body of evidence to suggest the simple act of gardening will do wonders for a person’s health, both mental and physical. Research shows that gardeners on the whole have higher self-esteem and fewer depressive feelings and fatigue that their non-gardening counterparts. Reductions in anxiety, stress and blood pressure have all been linked to regularly working in the garden.

Gardening gives us a sense of responsibility and purpose and as such, encourages feelings of self-worth. It is also fantastic exercise, releasing dopamine, serotonin and endorphins that make us feel good. And the mindful nature of it allows us to focus on the task at hand, living in the present moment rather than being distracted by potentially anxious or uncomfortable thoughts.

There are even microbes found in soil that act as natural antidepressants. Mycobacterium vaccae occurs naturally in the soil around us and has been shown to increase levels of serotonin and decrease anxiety. How incredible is that!

Gardening doesn’t have to be an extracurricular activity at school. It can be a really useful teaching resource to help provide lessons across numerous different subjects – Maths, Science, English, Art; the possibilities are as great as teachers’ imaginations. And the feedback we’ve heard from teachers is often that an outdoor teaching resource helps them input an extra level of creativity and spark into their lesson plans.

If you don’t have the space or know-how, you can start small: a few pots on a sunny windowsill, some seeds, soil and water can be all you need to begin your gardening journey. And your ambitions and knowledge can grow as your seedlings start to sprout.

If you are keen to discuss possibilities of creating an Edible Playground at a school, contact the author of this article: mike@treesforcities.org.

Bexley food growing and mental health workshop a success

Food Growing Schools: London teamed up with The London Borough of Bexley’s Public Health Team to highlight the positive impact food growing can have on young peoples mental health and to get more schools to get involved.

We shared details about this session in January, to see more read Promoting healthy lifestyles and mental wellbeing in schools.

The food growing forum was held after school on 29 January at Bexley Civic Council Offices and was a great success.

Ten staff members from various Bexley Primary and Secondary Schools participated in an informative session that considered how school food growing activities can support the mental health needs of pupils.

Lisa Grant, Engagement Officer for Food Growing Schools: London (FGSL) writes:

“The Public Health Team in Bexley and I met with in November last year to discuss the idea we had of a jointly run forum/workshop. We wanted to share information about dealing with the struggles that school-life can throw-up by discussing outdoor learning or food growing as a positive outlet for pupils with mental health challenges.  We were thrilled to be able to come together to run this session which was met with positive reviews.”

Pascale, from Bexley Public Health team,  has a background in promoting positive initiatives for dealing with mental health issues. She shared information around the Five Ways to Wellbeing – something she is promoting through assemblies in schools in Bexley..

Lisa from Food growing Schools; London knew that many of the people attending were new to food growing and worked at schools where the outdoor growing space was overgrown or non-existent.  She presented ideas on how to infuse outdoor learning activities linked to promoting mental health initiatives into the school day.The session included attendees making their own paper pot, filling it with compost and sowing a broad bean seed.  This activity was an example of what school staff could engage in with their pupils in a mindful way.

We encouraged everyone to keep in contact with us at Food Growing Schools: London in order for us to let them know what further support we could offer via our online survey. On top of that, we encouraged everyone to sign-up for our regular FGSL Newsletter which includes lots of helpful information including fun competitions and training available throughout London.