Sustainability at School: Lessons in The Cycles of Life

the garden at blackheath public school

L to R: Cyrus, Genevieve, Pippa, Ilka, Gabi, Eden, Caitlin, Owena, Esther with eggs, sunflowers and worms. (Images supplied)

Story by Hamish Dunlop

Blackheath Public School is providing hands-in-the-dirt lessons on how students can make their school more sustainable. From Crunch & Sip to Cluckingham Palace – literally! – organic waste makes the sunflowers shine and worms frolic in the fertile compost. Students will soon be eating spinach and cheese scrolls made by the canteen using garden produce, while parents report their children want to eat more vegetables.

Key Points:

  • Blackheath Public School has a thriving garden with chooks, raised beds and a sustainable water supply.
  • Scraps from Crunch & Sip feed chooks and worms. Garden produce will be used by the canteen and goes to families and care givers.
  • Students are learning about sustainable practices and benefiting from other integrated learning opportunities.

It’s Crunch & Sip time at Blackheath Public School. Crunch & Sip is a morning break when students refuel on vegetables and fruit and stay hydrated by drinking water.

It’s a no-brainer. Well-fed and watered children (and adults!) are just better prepared to participate and learn.

But what happens to the ends of the snow peas and the apple cores?  

Riley with compost bins that are in each classroom and Jermone, April and Charlie adding green material and brown material to the compost. (Images supplied)

At Blackheath Public, there’s no time for waste. Some scraps go to the chooks housed in the appropriately named Cluckingham Palace. Some go into compost bins and worm farms. Hillier Windsor is the supervising teacher who runs the garden project. She thought it would be amazing for the students to experience an in-place, closed food production system.

Watch how the students make compost from food and packaging waste

A Sustainable Schools Program grant funded the garden beds and a roof-fed water tank. The tank provides water for the chickens and the wicking garden beds. Wicking reservoirs sit 20 to 30cm below the surface of the garden beds. They limit evaporation, thereby saving water. It means the plants continue to flourish during school breaks too. Water self-sufficiency adds another sustainability component to the project and a learning opportunity for the students.


Students adding Perlite to the wicking capsules during the construction of the wicking beds. (Image supplied)

The Green Team

At the commencement of the project, students were asked if they’d like to join the project’s Green Team. Hillier thought around two students per class would be interested in participating. To her surprise, it turned out to be on average ten pupils. “Each student wrote about why they wanted to be part of the team,” Hillier says. “It was so fantastic! I couldn’t say no to any of them. They talked about loving the environment, keeping the school clean, wanting to care for the animals and bugs and wanting to learn about pollinators.”

Learn about the Green Team journey in this video narrated by Blackheath Public School students

The interest from the students is spread evenly across the year groups. Hillier says there are Green Team leaders – older students who assist with keeping the project on track. They help younger Green Team members and know about how to look after the chickens, checking for low food and water levels and making sure these are topped up. “I’m not there every day of the week,” Hillier says. “Other teachers and support staff help keep an eye on the chooks while I’m not there, but the students are rostered to take care of everything day-to-day.”

Ella filling up the chickens’ water and Emilia and Lucy having some chicken time.

Ella filling up the chickens’ water and Emilia and Lucy having some chicken time. (Images supplied)

Integrated Learning

The garden provides a bevy of opportunities for integrated learning. Hillier’s Year 6 maths class calculated the weight of Crunch & Sip scraps generated every year by averaging the scraps collected by each class. Students who are not on the Green Team are still involved through these opportunities. The student tech team made videos about how to make your own compost, worm farms, and how to care for chickens. These will be shared with parents and the wider community. “It’s beautiful,” Hillier says. “Real life learning at its best.”

Hillier secured a second federal grant to turn the shelter shed next to the garden into an indoor/outdoor learning environment. She says teachers will be able to hold classes during winter where students aren’t standing in freezing rain. “We can do winter activities like saving seeds and learning about pollinators, right next to where the pollination happens.”

Year 1 and 2 learning about how to make compost and students harvesting seeds

Year 1 and 2 learning about how to make compost and students harvesting sunflower seeds. (Images supplied)

Positive outcomes

When the school applied for grants to fund the program, one of the arguments put forward was that it takes just ten minutes a day of ‘green time’ to affect positive mental health outcomes. One of the less anticipated outcomes is how the program has helped disengaged students.

Hillier did a teachers’ survey that revealed the program has created engagement across the cohort. “It’s been amazing to see students getting involved who have traditionally found it challenging to participate. We’ve got kids coming to school early to feed the chickens and check for eggs. It’s wonderful.”

Another great unintended outcome is that children are asking their parents for a wider variety of vegetables and fruit in their Crunch & Sip snacks. “We didn’t aim to increase the healthy food that kids are eating,” Hillier says. “Lots of parents have said to me, ‘My kids just love the Green Team and now I’ve got to put in carrots, as well as cucumber, as well as snow peas. It’s so great!’”

When there’s more produce, students will be able to eat directly from the garden. “We’ve got kids eating nasturtiums and tasting sage leaves. It’s expanding their horizons,” she enthuses.

L to R: Harley, Padmai, Scarlett; Scarlett & Sabine trying things in the garden.

L to R: Harley, Padmai, Scarlett; Scarlett & Sabine trying things in the garden. (Images supplied)

Sharing the love

The garden produces vegetables and herbs and the chickens lay eggs. Now the garden is flourishing, some of the produce will go to the canteen where food is cooked fresh onsite. Hillier says the canteen manager, Paul, is making basil pesto and spanakopita from the garden spoils in the coming weeks. She is also aiming for the students to sell bunches of herbs to their care givers to help fund the garden. Garlic is on the menu. “I think parents will love to buy organic garlic from the Green Team. That’s a plan for this year.”

The eggs the chickens produce are collected by the students and taken to the canteen. Each week a raffle is held. Tickets cost $1. Regardless of who wins, the money goes back into buying chicken feed.

At the end of last year, nine dozen eggs from the chooks had been amassed. A celebration was held to thank all the members of the Green Team for their hard work.

It was also to recognise care givers and other community members who had volunteered their time. “It was really cool and incredibly well attended for an end of year event,” Hillier says. “I think we had over 200 people. It’s testament to the effect the project is having and who its reaching.”

Hillier on a misty day in the flourishing garden. (Hamish Dunlop)

Support from all quarters

Kristin Harge, the school’s Principal, has been incredibly supportive of the program. The school has committed to employing Hillier one day a week to manage the project. “It’s fantastic,” Hiller says. “It’s too much to ask full time teachers to manage something like this. It presents an unsustainable workload which makes the whole project unsustainable. Kristin’s support and that of the Executive means the project will run smoothly and the students will be able to get the most out of it.”

Kristin says that within the school community there is a high level of interest and commitment to incorporating environmental and sustainability-focused perspectives and processes into everyday life.

“Our vision was designing a more inclusive garden space with raised garden wicking beds, wheelchair-friendly paths, pollinator areas and an edible native garden. Involvement in garden and sustainability programs teaches skills for life that enhance emotional and physical wellbeing, as well as the wellbeing of our planet.”

Family and Friends gardening on Thursday morning. Metin and Katherine.

Family and friends gardening on Thursday morning. Metin (left) and Katherine (right). (Images supplied)

On top of the two grants, the community and local businesses have contributed money and provided materials and services for reduced rates, or free of charge. Kristin says Blackheath Mitre 10, Bunnings Katoomba, Weber’s Nursery, Joyce & BDC Building Solutions and LTJ Plumbing, made valuable contributions. She says the school’s Parents and Citizens’ Association has also been really supportive of the project.

When 5 tonnes of aggregate needed to be shifted into the raised gardens, a hardy group of parents and care-givers took up the call. Families looked after the chickens over the Christmas break too. Hillier says there are ongoing tasks that parents can help with. If you’re up for mucking out the chooks or you want to contribute, head to the school on Thursday mornings from 9am to 10am.

Parents (Sam and Brad) helping load aggregate into the beds and students (Sebastian and Jamie) calculating the volume of the garden beds.

Parents (Sam and Brad) helping load aggregate into the beds and students (Sebastian and Jamie) calculating the volume of the garden beds. (Images supplied)

Cliff View Community Farm on Shipley Plateau and The Veggie Patch in Blackheath provide seedlings all year round. The farm will also manage the excess organic waste from the school once scraps are being collected from all food breaks. In future, students will be able to visit the farm and see a more substantial growing environment that includes geese, alpacas, grapes, kiwifruit, and an apple orchard.

The ripple effect

Because of where the garden beds are positioned, there’s room to expand as well. More organic waste can be collected, more parents and care givers can get involved and benefit, and more integrated learning opportunities are opening up.

The school is also part of the Sustainable Schools Network. Hillier says many of the schools in the Blue Mountains participate. “We meet each term and talk about what we’re doing. We share what’s working and discuss the initiatives we’re planning. The garden is like a pebble in a pond,” she says. “The benefits ripple outwards.”

Take Action:

  • Celebrate that our children are learning positive and sustainable ways to live in the world.
  • Contact Hillier to see how you might be able to support the garden project. The school runs a ‘family and friends’ gardening time each Thursday morning 9am to 10am to encourage parents and caregivers to engage with the school.
  • Keep an eye out for the compost and worm farm workshops.

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This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.

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About Hamish Dunlop

Hamish Dunlop is a writer, visual artist and environmentalist. During his career he has worked in communications, as an academic at UNSW and ACU and more recently in the conservation space. He is currently completing a Diploma in Conservation and Ecosystems Management. He lives on the bush in Medlow Bath and is a passionate bush walker, gardener and cold-water enthusiast.

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