Gardening is an important part of permaculture, but permaculture is much more than just gardening. Getting children’s hands in the dirt, especially if it involves growing their own food, is a fantastic way to introduce them to the natural world and to help them better understand our place within it.
the principles created by permaculture’s co-founder Bill Mollison is “everything
gardens”. For example, stones change their environment by providing a habitat
for minibeasts, casting a shadow on one side and absorbing the sun and
radiating it back out at night.
When helping children to understand permaculture principles, you don’t need to directly quote them, but instead ask the child questions that can help them think things through for themselves. For example, “What are the things this plant (or animal, insect, tree etc) does to help other plants, animals or humans?” or, “What does this insect (or animal, tree etc) do to make life easier for itself?”
Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share in Education: The Children in Permaculture Manual goes into this in much greater depth than there’s room for in this article, but I thought it would be good to look at one of the chapters, “Growing Food”,for some ideas about how to engage children in permaculture, whether that’s simply in your own garden, or in a more formal educational setting such as a nursery or forest school.
Watching a tiny seed sprout, grow and transform slowly into a plant that produces fruit or vegetables for us to eat is an amazing and rewarding experience for children (and adults). All the senses are engaged in the process of digging the earth, pouring water, and smelling and tasting fruit and vegetables as they are harvested.
Observing daily changes in plants also develops patience and an appreciation of nature, and being directly involved in caring for them helps foster a love and respect for the natural world.
Growing food helps cultivate gratitude for the abundance nature freely offers us, as well as towards those who grow the food we eat. Children can also be involved in caring for the soil though returning food and plant waste back to the earth as compost, which is another great transformative process to observe over time.
“Children growing up today face an uncertain future, with significant changes in climate, weather extremes, resources, biodiversity and more,” says Lusi Alderslowe, co-author of The Children in Permaculture Manual. “It’s a time when society needs to accept feedback from the Earth and respond to it. We can all be part of the solution through connecting to nature and bringing the ethics and principles of permaculture into education.
“When children design their own learning, experiment, and directly experience nature and educate others, they can develop their own understanding of the world, becoming more engaged, confident and empowered.”
is a holistic approach, so it’s important to ensure children have a
multi-dimensional learning experience. This can be done through designing
sessions that engage the whole body, including a balance for the eyes
(observation with all the senses), hands (learning by doing), heart (emotions)
and head (intellect).
The activities listed below are edited extracts from the book Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share in Education: The Children in Permaculture Manual by Lusi Alderslowe, Gaye Amus and Didi A. Devapriya.
Ideas for activities
Helping to grow food. Use easy plants to start with such as salads, herbs, peas and strawberries. Having a patch of their own can be great for some children, but also a bit overwhelming for others, so it’s often best to simply focus on gardening together and not make it too pressured! If they aren’t looking after it well themselves, perhaps you can be a ‘garden fairy’ in their absence so that they still get a sense of joy and achievement.
3–6 years old
Smell, touch and taste different varieties of fruit and vegetables grown in the garden as well as wild edibles.
Observe the growth process of an annual plant: from sowing through to flowering, fruiting and seeding.
Touch and compare different seeds, such as sunflowers, peas, poppies.
Grow food plants and care for them by watering, mulching, weeding etc.
Collect seeds from different plants.
Use tools safely that are age-appropriate, such as small trowels.
Share the abundance of harvest with others, including birds and composting worms.
Create a planting ceremony with songs, poems or dance to ask the earth to feed the plant, the sun to shine on it and the rain to water it.
Celebrate harvests with festivals or special meals.
Find out where food comes from, for example apples from a tree, carrots from under the ground.
Compare the size of fruit and vegetables as they grow.
Name different plants growing in the garden that you can eat.
7–12 years old
Observe how different types of plants grow well in different places depending on the sun, space, water, heat, nutrients etc.
Identify different types of seeds.
Reflect on how a garden inspired by permaculture is different from other styles of gardening.
Make a new baby plant from a parent plant (taking cuttings).
Grow plants in a crop rotation.
Try growing mushrooms on logs, books or sawdust.
Create a permaculture design plan to grow food in polycultures.
Celebrate harvests with local traditions and those from around the world.
Care for a plant and learn to recognise when it needs something – is it dry, happy, hungry etc?
Build a positive relationship with ‘weeds’ by collecting and pressing or drying them to make a piece of art, for example a greeting card or a beautiful salad to share.
about the history of foods and plants traditionally cultivated within your
Select appropriate plant species for your location, taking into account the microclimate, soil type and pH.
Learn when to harvest different types of produce from the garden.
Other ideas to try
Make your own compost: www.52climateactions.com/make-compost/full
Create a food forest, a garden which typically consists of several different layers of edible plants growing together:www.52climateactions.com/plant-edible-forest-garden/full
What is permaculture? It was originally derived from the words ‘permanent’ and ‘agriculture’ but is now a much more diverse global movement towards more sustainable lifestyles. Permaculture design mimics nature’s patterns, giving maximum effect for minimal effort and valuing the natural resources we have available to us. Find out more at www.permaculture.org.uk
Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share in Education: The Children in Permaculture Manual by Lusi Alderslowe, Gaye Amus and Didi A. Devapriya is available from the Permaculture Association website.
Sarah Cossom works in digital communications and also runs a community orchard and allotment in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear. She writes articles on permaculture, gardening, sustainable lifestyles, hops and chicken keeping.