The London community farm starting an eco revolution

The London community farm starting an eco revolution

The Outsiders Project — Grow is the organisation showing young people the importance of mental wellbeing, physical health and nature. In doing so, it’s fostering a new generation of eco warriors.

Even in the city, we’re never that far away from nature. There are over 27,000 parks in the UK, and even in the most built-up of urban areas, rare animals and wild flowers still find a way to thrive. But all too often in cities, nature is framed as something hostile. Thick bushes full of thorns are grown to keep us out of private spaces, and wild animals like pigeons, foxes and mice are seen as vermin; something that shouldn’t really be there. 

One organisation is trying to challenge that, by teaching young people the power and the fun of discovering the natural world. Grow – founded in 2019 – was set up in response to the climate crisis, rising obesity levels among children, and the surging mental health crisis faced by young people. 

Launching at Totteridge Academy in North London in 2019, the organisation works with schools and communities to deliver programmes in food growing and outdoor learning.  At Totteridge, they built a community farm, which is used by students during lessons, as well as providing healthy, organic food for the school canteen.

Grow’s unique curriculum for secondary students shows young people the importance of mental wellbeing, physical health and nature. It covers everything from mindfulness to philosophical thinking, and at the heart of the programme, it’s about encouraging young people to find joy in the outdoors; to go out and touch it, grow it, eat it.

Last month, Grow welcomed The Outsiders Project to experience their work first hand. A summer holiday programme was in full swing and its young attendees were doing everything from foraging for fruit and picking flowers to whittling wood to make decorations, while staff and volunteers harvested fruits and vegetables. 

Natasha, Forest School Facilitator

“I teach reception at another school, but I come here to do forest school sessions and volunteer during the school holidays. The forest school involves all sorts of activities; whittling wood, learning about nature and the seasons, the names of birds, tree identification.

“Last week’s children had quite a significant number of needs. To see them right at the beginning, they were very edgy, jostling for positions of being in charge, there were a lot of very strong characters. By the end, they really didn’t want to go home. They were hiding from their parents. There’s a whole process of trust and confidence here; of seeing who they really are. Often they have these behaviours that take away from the beauty of their own true character. We praise them, encourage them, show them and give them responsibility.

“It is calming for the young people and they’re learning skills and using tools they wouldn’t normally get to. The beauty of being in the woods is that you are not actually meeting any national curriculum criteria so it’s a leveller; everyone is learning it for the first time, everyone is experiencing it for the first time together.

“Over the summer camp, everyone has become more in tune with the natural environment and the local wildlife. I do lots of walks in the woods, it gives me a sense of peace and it helps me recalibrate myself. These things are really significant, but we take it for granted a lot of the time. I grew up in Ghana and I never really thought about how the beach was just around the corner, when something is part of your environment, you don’t always give it the level of respect that it’s due. Here, you might pass a bunch of flowers and not even know they are. Now, we ask those questions, ‘What’s the name of that flower, what’s that birdsong I can hear?’

“Before the lockdown I’d never really grown anything in my garden before. Now I love growing vegetables from seed and watching the whole process of the tomatoes. Last year I did tomatoes and peppers, this year I’ve got leeks, tomatoes, pumpkins; a real wide range. 

I wake up each morning and just say hello to them before I have my cup of tea – then I’m good to go! It’s not necessarily the products that I get, it’s the process of growing. Every single time I’m actually baffled by the fact that I’ve actually grown something from a little seed. It’s just a joy.”

Waafiq, Summer camp student

“There’s outdoor spaces where we live but we didn’t go during lockdown because we were so worried about Covid-19. We stayed indoors so much that it hurt my eyes when I first went out again, everything was blurry.

“I play video games a lot, but I feel weird if I spend too much time looking at a screen; it makes me dizzy. Now I’ve got used to the farm, I love to come here and be outside. I really like it here, sometimes I don’t feel like going home at the end of the day.

“My favourite thing is to grow tomatoes. You need to have a warm space where they can grow upwards. My mum wants me to tell her what I learn about growing vegetables so that we can do it together at home. I didn’t know anything about it before coming here. 

“When I’m older, I want to be a farmer…or a car engineer. Maybe I’ll be both.”

Stavri, Educational assistant

“My head teacher at college sent an email saying there was an opportunity to work here if anyone wanted to apply for it. I thought, why not? I was a proper city girl before this, I never did outdoorsy stuff. If you ask any of my friends, they would say, ‘You, on a farm? With children?!’ but it’s turned out amazing; I’m getting to learn about the outdoors with the kids. 

You just feel better in yourself after spending time here. You walk into the forest and it’s so calming. Before I started working here I was really introverted, I liked to be in my house, by myself in my room. When the pandemic started I’d look outside and realise how much I’d taken it for granted. It’s the same with the kids; they just want to run around and not be stuck inside all day. Some of them experienced a lot of anxiety, being here definitely helps them feel better.”

Tia, Summer camp student

“It feels like the countryside here. Yesterday we made a crumble. We went foraging for blackberries to go in it. I really like cooking and I like being outdoors, it makes me feel happy. I’m a Cub Scout; I love camping and I can make a fire without matches, which is very hard.

“I’m a very loud person, a very excited person; I get very hyper and I have problems sleeping for some reason. It’s hard for me to fall asleep because my brain is always working.  Being on the farm calms me down, I find it very relaxing spending time outdoors.”

Christian, Summer camp student

“I knew a bit about gardening because my granny does it, but I didn’t know all about how squash are cousins with pumpkins. You need to have a lot of patience because if you don’t have any patience you won’t be able to wait for them to grow. It does take time.  Some plants can take years, some plants can take days or months. So patience is the key ingredient.

“Grow has made me realise how important the world is. People have done so much damage to the environment. It might not be their fault, they might not know how much damage they’re doing, but if you come to the farms then you start to realise what’s happening [to the planet]. 

“When you’re on video games, sometimes you can get addicted. You can get addicted to the farm as well but it’s a good thing. It means you will have experienced farming and when you’re older and you can stop the environment from ending and stuff.” 

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