We’re in the grip of a mental health crisis, largely due to the pandemic, and children are bearing the brunt of it. So how do we invest in our younger generation? By teaching them the principles of sustainability and mindfulness, according to TV presenter George Lamb, who’s been cultivating the eco-warriors of the future on a farm at the top end of the Northern line.
Lamb founded GROW, a community farm and life skills initiative, two years ago in partnership with The Totteridge Academy in Barnet. The project aims to connect pupils with nature and arm them with tools to manage their mental and physical wellbeing through activities such as farming and meditation.
He’s on a mission to reform education. “I want GROW on the curriculum of every secondary school in the country by 2030,” he tells me as we shelter from the rain in a greenhouse surrounded by the students’ seedlings.
All year seven and eight pupils at the school (about 300 in total) have an hour of GROW a week as part of the curriculum under the pilot scheme. There are three modules: ground, flow and think.
Ground teaches the principles of farming, nutrition and environmental issues. Today’s lesson, taught by Darren Springer, is all about recycling, with each student asked to bring examples of household waste to sort through, sparking a lively debate.
“It’s about getting outside, getting your hands dirty, understanding how your food’s grown and learning how to be self-sustainable,” Lamb says.
Flow combines practices like yoga, mindfulness and breathwork to help pupils reach their “flow state”, as Lamb puts it. “We’re teaching the kids that there’s a power-up button they can crank if they need to get in the zone, and they can apply that to whatever they’re interested in.”
Think is all about philosophical inquiry. “We’ve knocked a lot of the critical and creative thinking out of the curriculum to make way for exams,” he says. “If we want more rounded individuals, we need to be encouraging them a bit more and raising their emotional and environmental intelligence.”
There’s also an extracurricular programme, Thrive, which offers boxing and basketball academies, a farm club and a soon-to-launch YouTube club.
Head teacher Chris Fairbairn says GROW has enhanced the school’s culture of responsibility and care “for ourselves, for one another, and for our environment”. And pupils at the academy are articulate about their love for GROW. “It can calm you down in a lot of different ways, it’s also very satisfying,” says Tyrell. “We do lots of practicals and we learn a lot about nature and how it works so we can give back what we take from it.”
“GROW helps me to feel more relaxed before and after lessons,” says Sebastian. “My favourite lesson is ground because you go outside to see the farm and nature, breathing the fresh air.”
“We have so many academic subjects where we have to write paragraphs and paragraphs,” adds Izzy. “GROW is just a really nice break and we have it on a Wednesday so it’s right in the middle of the week.”
Isaac, last month’s “Grower of the month”, says: “My favourite module is think. Because I love talking and thinking about different things that you wouldn’t usually think about, like philosophy. It should be in all secondary schools because it helps you reset.”
Lamb says he’s surprised by how receptive students have been to the meditative aspects of the programme, like breathwork exercises. “Not growing up through the prism of social media was much easier for us. We’re giving kids a toolkit to regulate their mental health and alleviate the stress and strains of the last year which has been rough for everyone, but I was astounded by how much of an appetite there was for it from the kids,” he says. “We’re teaching them to look after themselves beyond just a + b = c, let’s show them how to tap into their flow state and encourage them to think creatively and expansively without being petrified of getting the answer wrong.”
Last year the six-acre farm, which uses agroecological farming techniques (sustainable farming that works with nature), produced a tonne of organic vegetables which went either to the school or local food banks. Creating a circular economy like this has its perks, one being far tastier school lunches.
Head chef Jake Barwood looks after the school canteen in association with Chefs in Schools, a charity working to transform food quality and culture in canteens. On today’s menu is homemade teriyaki salmon with potato wedges and vegetable stir fry, spinach and ricotta lasagna and spelt pizza. For snacks there are pots of fruit or popcorn. The chef makes his own kimchi and there are salads with leaves, tomatoes and radishes all sourced direct from the farm.
“We celebrate ingredients from all over the world, with lots of spice, and different flavours, it creates conversations and banter around food,” Barwood says. “We now source around two of the main veg a week solely from the farm and lots of the salads and eggs.”
The link with Chefs in Schools means he can source fresh produce from top suppliers for a lower price. “We get things like olives, capers and olive oil, amazing fish all at cost.”
Being a part of the farm-to-plate journey encourages youngsters to have a better understanding of the impact of farming methods and consumption habits, Lamb argues. He wants GROW to “set the benchmark for how we teach young people”.
Totteridge Academy is doing things differently and it shows. There is a buzz in the corridors, but also a sense of calm in classrooms. As for Lamb’s ambitious target? After an afternoon of GROW at the academy, it seems odd that this isn’t the norm. More time moving and being outside sounds like a winning formula.
GROW is now crowdfunding for phase two of the GROW journey crowdfunder.co.uk/grow-phase2
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