Royal School Manchester teacher, Jean Barratt, runs a programme at Seashell, which looks to develop our students’ skills through horticulture. The programme evolves with the seasons, with school holidays providing a demarcation point for Seashell’s students to change: i.e. from sowing seeds in May to harvesting in June and planting in autumn.

The development of students’ skills is the main focus within the horticulture programme and the skills of Jean’s team are boundless.

Jean takes to writing short pieces to truly provide an insight into the activities of the horticulture programme and the key development of Seashell’s students:

Tales from the Greenhouse, February 2022

It has been a while since I have had a chance to sit down and share the activities we have been working on. COVID has proved a merciless opponent for us all both in school and in the wider world and my little corner has been no exception to this. However, in spite of all the doom and gloom I do have cause to celebrate.

In October the fantastic new greenhouse supplied by the Mulchand Foundation arrived.  It has had one or two adaptations made so we can turn wheelchairs; the height of the staging has been set for this purpose plus one or two other tweaks. This means that once the growing season starts our most vulnerable students will be able to work outdoors with me even if the summer proves a rainy one.  This is a tremendous bonus, effectively creating a new classroom and providing continuity of learning for these particular pupils.

Another huge ‘Thank You’ goes to Derek Debelder and the Wilmslow Dean Rotary club who have gifted the students a large amount of gardening tools so we can further hone the skills of my apprentices. This is a particularly useful gift for my team: as I mentioned in a previous article, I have a very high mortality rate with tools.  This is an inevitable part of the process as students learn how to use the tools safely and appropriately and is generally a short lived part of the learning curve, however, it can be expensive!

If any of you are working with your own youngsters on gardening projects at home I would suggest starting with the cheapest plastic/lightweight tools you can find.  Once the handling skills have been established, and the risk of throwing has passed, then it’s worth moving to something more durable.  This is particularly important with the larger implements such as spades.  I have found that many of my autistic students find the heavy work of digging a very calming activity and this needs quality tools to be achieved.

The Christmas term saw us moving indoors and making wreaths.  Last year these were available to families but this year we scaled back a little and used the opportunity to sell across site to staff.  I was greatly impressed by how many of the students had retained their skills from last year and it felt like a real tonic to sit with them all round the big table in the hut surrounded by all the baubles and tinsel. For the first time I sent wreath making materials out to some of the young people supported by our Outreach team and the results were promising.

Given the popularity of door wreaths throughout the year I would highly recommend this activity to any parent of any child whether they are SEN or not.  Pinterest and Youtube will give you lots of ideas using seasonal materials.  A base of wire (old coat-hangers can be bent and used), or twigs bent and tied into a ring; it doesn’t have to be expensive.  An open base of twigs will allow children to push foliage etc into the gaps.  This is a brilliant way of presenting choices of material and promoting the pincer grip.  With the wreaths we make to sell, I limit the choices – pre-selecting a range of textures and colours which will always harmonize.   A walk in any park or garden will yield interesting twiggy shapes to be added or evergreen foliage which will last outdoors for a few weeks.

Our Christmas items are artificial (Family Services have been a great help in helping us out with a supply of beautiful baubles and foliage) and are attached on thin, bendy garden wire – the plastic coated variety from garden centres is soft enough to be safely handled.  This needs some prep work as everything needs to be securely wired ready for attaching – currently only one of my students is able to help me with this part of the process. Once everything is laid out students follow an exemplar but with a distinct tendency to freestyle.  They make selections and have to use both hands to work on the wreath.  This is a particularly difficult thing for many of my students who tend to have a dominant side they prefer to work with.  If you are working with someone who shares this difficulty, sadly there is no magic bullet, just plenty of encouragement and reminders with verbal and physical prompts.

Most of my students are already able to create a simple wreath with the push-in method so we are predominantly working on developing the twisting motion of securing the wired baubles etc.  This is a tricky thing to learn and it may be so for whoever you are supporting.  One tip I can share with you, and which has helped some of my students to understand this process, is to do the action in reverse.  If gripping the wires and twisting is proving too hard, I suggest you hold the wires and allow the child to twist the whole wreath like a steering wheel till they start to feel the tension.  In this way lots of my team have been full participants in the making process rather than being passive observers.  Furthermore, a good number have now recognized the effect of the twisting process and are able to move on to twisting the wires themselves.  This is definitely an activity worth trying as it will provide so many opportunities for a range of visual, verbal and tactile conversations.

With the days lengthening we are feeling a little twitchy in the hut and can’t wait for things to warm up so we can be back in the great outdoors. By the time you read this, my windowsills will be festooned with trays of lobelia and petunia seeds germinating, ready to be pricked out by the students in a few weeks. The winter has undoubtedly been a long hard slog for all of us and adaptability has been the watchword in coping with the chaos COVID has brought to us all.  I would like to flag up the compassion and the resilience of my colleagues, and in particular the Teaching Assistants who are so skilled in supporting the young people and helping them achieve their potential.  With what I hope is the worst of the pandemic behind us I look forward to a bright summer and highly productive gardening season with you all.

Jean Barratt