From outdoor learning to residentials – The Garden Classroom develops a residential programme

Key features

  • Low-cost, affordable camping
  • Activities co-designed with schools
  • Supported by an experienced, well-trained team and other 'experts'

In this case study, Marnie Rose, the founder and CEO of The Garden Classroom describes how they grew from delivering simple “pop-up” outdoor learning for local schools in Islington’s parks and gardens, to a creating its Brilliant Residentials Camping programme in partnership with a farmer in Kent, having been inspired by the Learning Away programme and the ‘back to basics’ camping residentials developed by Hanover Primary School, one of the original 60 Learning Away schools.

The Garden Classroom (TGC) started life in 2008 as a small social enterprise based at King Henry’s Walk Garden in Islington, north east London. Now, nine years later, it is an innovative charity that aims to “connect urban children and families with nature” by providing “transformative outdoor experiences”.

Where and how did we start?

The idea of developing a camping residential programme began when TGC developed a new relationship with Kent farmers who wanted London children to benefit from the beautiful countryside they owned and managed. Initially we designed and delivered the ‘Hoppin Down in Kent’ project – a programme of extended days (from 9am to 8pm) on the farm for their partner schools, taking children to an ex-hop pickers hut where they learnt about the lives of the pickers who travelled from London each year to pick hops and have a working summer holiday.  The tin agricultural building is transformed into a vintage backdrop for inspiring outdoor learning with props and items from 1940 and a small exhibition room with fresh hop bines, old photos of hop pickers and information about the lives of these families in Kent during the post war period. This extended day programme is still being delivered.

However in 2015, we realised from the positive feedback provided by the schools who took part in the project that children and teachers were constantly asking “please can we camp here” and “I don’t want to go home … please can we stay?” and we wondered if TGC could make this a reality.

Developing an initial pilot

Inspired by Learning Away programme and the Brilliant Residentials campaign , we decided to apply for funding to kick start a camping pilot to see if it was a service schools might really be interested in. In 2016 we borrowed the camping equipment from Hanover School and delivered two short camping ‘pilots’ in our hop picking field. After reviewing them thoroughly we realised we had found a truly exciting and life enhancing experience that both children and teachers could benefit from. In May 2017 we very quickly filled all four TGC Brilliant Residentials Camps to Islington and Hackney schools, with some schools disappointed if they weren’t able to take part. At TGC we brainstormed some initial ‘springboard’ ideas, then visited the schools to talk to the children and teachers who co-designed the types of activities they thought they might like. Teachers and school staff are so incredibly busy and so they were very grateful for this hand-holding support – I doubt very much if they would have been part of a camping project if they had to design it all themselves. TGC used the Learning Away model of direct engagement and input from schools, which generated valuable dialogue between the TGC team which definitely led the experience to be the best it could be.

With risk management, first aid, child protection and safeguarding at the forefront of this new offer for TGC, we trained our team (of staff, freelance contributors and volunteers) in everything we felt they needed to know to be confident and skilled enough to manage this exciting new programme.

A fully established and growing programme

Groups sleep in tents in the ex-hop pickers field on a farm in Kent, cook their own food, sing songs around the campfire, hike through woodland and across fields, build shelters, climb trees, discover how to build a fire with no matches and learn how to forage for wild foods. The children have “an adventure immersed in the natural world”.

We are now planning a longer three week TGC Brilliant Residentials Camps again for May 2018. Excitingly, with funding from a Trust, we have been able to fully equip our own camp (including several bell tents) and install an agricultural style shower and first aid room. All at TGC feel it is just the beginning of what could be a very exciting journey. We are also in discussion with the same farmer about another possible camping field nearby that we could expand to … watch this space!

Click here to watch a short, inspiring film of The Garden Classroom’s Brilliant Residentials camping trip in May 2017 with three Islington and Hackney schools.

Interesting practical considerations

We’ve learnt so much about setting up a camp from scratch and it’s been really exciting and rewarding. We are ready now for our third year of camping and we are excited about the future of TGC Brilliant Residential Camps. However, over the past three years we’ve learnt a lot about the practicalities of this sort of camping on a farm, including:

We knew that the trees surrounding the camping field and the nearby copse had never been checked, so we recruited the support of a brilliant local tree arborist who now regularly inspects and manages the trees to ensure they are safe. He even installed a tyre swing on one of these trees, which the children absolutely love (and teachers observe in a deckchair with a cup of tea!).

We asked the manager of our local city farm to give provide H & S and risk management advice. This proved  invaluable as we developed and improved our risk assessments, activities and operations at the site.

One of TGC’s patrons  identified the poisonous berries around the field, which helped us to develop a visual guide and ‘rules’ for the children about picking berries.

We weren’t sure if the farm’s neighbours would complain about the noise. So we ask the children to approach the field “as quiet as mice”. The farmer and we regularly talk to the neighbours about what we are doing and why. So far no-one has complained about the camp, which has given us the confidence to expand the programme.

Livestock usually grazes in the field we camp in for many months of the year, so we sought advice from the local council with regard to managing hazards for children and adults. They have provided clear guidance on reducing the likelihood of transferring bacteria / e-coli from livestock to humans.

I caught red-handed a mouse eating TGC’s beloved seven metre bell tent and we became concerned about vermin damage! So the farmer put down some vermin control measures and the Trust who kindly funded our camping gear also said they would also fund some vermin-proof containers.

Feedback from schools

Schools who participated at TGC Brilliant Residentials Camps in 2017 told us that:

  • 100% of their class enjoyed the camp
  • 100% of their children’s health and wellbeing improved as a direct result of the experience
  • This grant funding enabled the price to be affordable for parents
  • They would highly recommend the experience to a colleague or another school.

Teachers said:

“I have always believed ventures like a school camp should be a permanent part of mainstream school. We need to find a way of all young people regardless of background, etc. reconnecting with nature and appreciating the values of working and eating together in a rural environment.”

“I think that it’s children like these who benefit the most, I completely underestimated how little they knew about outdoor living and nature. When they arrived and they wanted to kill all the bugs and chase all the birds, and they’ve left with a respect for nature, understanding that we need to respect the environment and without a fear of minibeasts, mud and dirt.”

“We have had a wonderful time camping! The children have had a chance to really be their best selves in an inspiring environment. I think they are seeing nature as something they can enjoy and be part of, as well as their city homes and school.”

“It was an excellent opportunity for science (dispersal of seeds, animals and plants, Earth in Space, sunsets and sunrise, length of shadows, condensation of dew, fire, boiling points in cooking), geography (reading maps), history (hop pickers), art and DT, and PHSCE (social skills and team work, overcoming their fears and trying new things, having new experiences, being organised and independent, helping each other and encouraging).”

Excellent energy levels, very well organised. Risk assessments were thorough with the children’s safety being paramount. Obviously well-planned with wide range of activities. I would recommend this experience as it allowed the children to feel the freedom of the outdoor experience and enjoy themselves.”

Children said:

“This is the best trip I’ve ever been on. It’s even better than going to another country”.

“It was an experience like no other.”

“I feel more in contact with nature because one night I slept with a stick and all the activities were amazing.”