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Sensory learning through gardening in primary school

November 19, 2021, 12:00 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • Being sent a Farm in a Box proved the perfect post-lockdown experience at Jo Smeaton’s school...
Sensory learning through gardening in primary school

Now we’re well into a new academic year, I’ve been reflecting on how the last two disrupted years have impacted our students’ learning, development and wellbeing, and some of the ways we’ve adapted. 

When pupils came back into schools in March, we had three particularly difficult months of re-adjustment. We faced a huge gap in learning, evidently (and still do), but, crucially, children really struggled to adjust socially and emotionally.

In the playground, we noticed a rise in some children struggling with positive play activities within their friendship groups. In class we noticed that they had lost their stamina and interest in learning, as well as key motor skills.

Pupils were also giving up on tasks much more readily than before, impacting their learning and self-confidence. 

Incorporating hands-on learning experiences has been invaluable at Scunthorpe’s Enderby Road Infant and Nursery School, for both children and teachers. The Country Trust’s new scheme, Farm in a Box, was particularly instrumental in fostering these lost skills and helped us to bridge the gaps in learning: students have built back resilience, perseverance and focus. 

Through a focus on food, farming and the countryside, the scheme helped our pupils explore some of the biggest issues relating to the outdoors: food production, protection of nature, healthy eating, and mental and physical wellbeing.

Boxes of delights

We were lucky to have five of the beautifully decorated and purposefully developed ‘Seeds we eat’ themed boxes for our Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 classes. Each box contained objects related to arable farming, alongside a huge variety of practical learning activities. They were hand delivered by the staff from the farm and came ready to explore.

The boxes were incredibly well resourced. The children had the opportunity to touch and smell different seeds, including wheat, barley, oats, beans and peas, and germinate them as well as make seed bombs. They went on a mini beast hunt and discovered more about the wildlife on the farm.

They also watched videos of the farmer showing children around the Warburtons farm and the machinery used. There were an endless number of suggested activities, many of which teachers used over a few days or even weeks.

The benefits of hands-on teaching practice after a year of lockdown learning were immediate, and Farm in a Box was a huge success at our school. Teachers were astounded by how quickly pupils retained information and target vocabulary.

This is a key focus area for us as we have several children who speak English as a second language at home and struggle with learning new vocabulary ordinarily. What really compounded the learning, though, were the farm visits, which fortunately four out of our five classes were able to enjoy. Connecting pre-learning in an experiential way and combining this with real-life visits made the scheme even more powerful.

The activities, which we mostly took outside of the classroom, had a direct impact on the children’s confidence. It was visible from the get-go: they were so interested and involved in the learning, and the box engaged their imagination straight away.

They were able to focus for a full half-day, something which has been a real challenge to achieve since the pandemic. This, in turn, made classroom management possible, which is especially useful when working with our SEN students who have different and more complex behaviour needs.

In fact, SEN students, in particular, benefited from the sensory explorations and practical activities as they generally respond extremely well to this type of learning practice, making Farm in a Box a truly inclusive teaching tool.

Sensory learning

The activities in the box got the children working in teams and pairs. Through peer-to-peer learning (with a little help from the teachers), they were able to gain practical knowledge by overcoming challenges or obstacles within the tasks set and develop their problem-solving skills.

These types of activities helped rebuild their social confidence as well as develop their self-esteem, as pupils were able to take ownership of the projects and gain a sense of accomplishment once they completed them. This, combined with the activities being quite physical, positively contributed to their overall health and wellbeing, which suffered throughout the pandemic.

Seeing things first-hand and not through a secondary source makes all the difference in learning, because the children can better grasp concepts. Being able to explore with all the senses makes objects real, rather than abstract concepts.

Experiential learning leads to this kind of ‘sticky’ knowledge, and Farm in a Box was a good reminder of this. We’re changing the curriculum moving forward to incorporate more practical, hands-on life experiences, especially as some of our children won’t otherwise have the opportunity of discovering nature, faming and the outside.

Heading out

We’ve had excellent feedback from students (who spoke about the box for days and weeks afterwards!), and the teachers welcomed the connection they had with the charity: staff were able to be discuss the activities, and there were lots of points of contact between us and The Country Trust.

Teachers also came away from the visit to Gander Farm saying it was the best trip they’d ever been on – welcome, as school visits are mostly a little stressful! It was an incredibly educational experience: the children learnt lots about the workings of the farm, asked questions and saw everything they’d learnt from Farm in a Box come to life.

Since the visits, we’ve tried to develop more outdoor activities. Some of the things that have helped the children after such a long stint away from the classroom include planting, growing and using the outdoor play areas (a kitchen area, a gravel kit) more frequently so that they can better connect and interact with one another. We’ve also invested in more PE resources for break time, so that the children can play more in groups while being physically active.

All in all, our teachers were overwhelmed with the positive benefits of Farm in a Box, and we’re excited to use The Country Trust’s upcoming climate change box in the autumn, employing hands-on teaching practice to further broaden our children’s knowledge of the outdoors.

Top tips for planning hands-on learning:

Choose an engaging subject that children have little-to-no experience of (eg the outdoors, nature, farming, etc).

  • Use real-life props and objects.
  • Plan enough time for teachers to explore the materials available to them, prepare and develop activities before sharing them with the children.
  • Try to take the activities outside.
  • Divide classes into smaller groups or pairs.
  • Ensure each pupil has time to touch, smell or listen to objects involved in the activity.
  • Build up theme in the weeks leading up to the activity (to help with vocabulary knowledge and retention).
  • Try to organise a school trip to consolidate all the learnings; working with a charity such as The Country Trust can help facilitate the experience.
  • When organising a trip, communicate regularly with organisers or hosts in order to get the best possible tailored experience for the children.

Jo Smeaton is headteacher at Scunthorpe’s Enderby Road Infant and Nursery School. For more information on the upcoming Climate Action Farm in a Box and to register interest, email