Muddied hands, clear mind

  • Students work together mowing and clipping trees. [Image: Thomas Sarah]
    Students work together mowing and clipping trees. [Image: Thomas Sarah]
  • A student lacquers timber on a vegetable planter box. [Image: Thomas Sarah]
    A student lacquers timber on a vegetable planter box. [Image: Thomas Sarah]
Bridget Sarah
Deakin University
Bridget Sarah,
Thomas Sarah
and Beau Guest

In a pocket of regional Victoria, Wendouree West, are some of the most resilient and loyal youth. This geographically small area of the community borders with an affluent, sparkling lakeside suburb, but its landscape is quite a contrast.

The Wendouree West community has known decades of intergenerational poverty associated with disproportionally high rates of food and housing insecurity, crime and incarceration, unemployment, and drug and alcohol abuse. Individual, family and systemic factors continue to expose the community’s children and youth to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

For every ACE, youth are at increased likelihood of experiencing poorer physical, social, emotional and psychological health outcomes. These developmental challenges, in combination with high rates of chronic life stressors, contribute to a range of negative mental health effects for this population. Commonly, disengagement and disenfranchisement from formal education and schooling understandably become part of their story.

Yuille Park Community College, Yuille Campus, is an alternative education setting for students aged 12–18 years who are at significant risk of disengagement from education. Many students self-report mild to severe mental health difficulties and many are patients of mental health services.

In recent years, the school grounds have looked weary, mirroring the lack of sparkle in many of the youth. When students needed a break, or to blow off some steam, weeds were pulled and lawns were mowed. Never as a negative consequence, but as an opportunity to get outside and regulate their overwhelmed nervous system in the company of a trusted staff member.

Over time, the landscape started to change and motivation and sparkle grew. Next, students built an onsite pizza oven. A semester-long numeracy, literacy and inquiry project commenced. Students identified that a seating area and vegetable gardens were needed if they were to serve up the freshest and most-envied pizzas in Wendouree. More planning, budgeting, resourcing, measuring and hands-on skills development ensued.

The teaching and learning opportunities inherent in the student's engagement in these hands-on experiences were obvious, but the host of mental health benefits known to be associated with time in nature were initially viewed as more of a by-product. What is now clear, however, is that for many of these youth, with first a regulated emotional system and a sense of purpose and connection to community, second can come learning.

‘I don’t really like coming to school but, if I don’t come in a couple of days a week, no-one might check on our worms in the worm farm and feed them.’ – Student, aged 14

‘It’s like the dirtier my hands get, the clearer my mind gets. No one cares if you have dirty hands, and you can just wash your hands and thoughts off for a while.’ – Student, aged 16

‘I have never really built anything before. But when I use our garden seats, I can just chill and I know they will make heaps of other people happy too.’ – Student, aged 15

The compounding effects of ACEs, chronic life stressors, mental health difficulties and schooling disengagement may be considered well beyond the scope of what a small school community can seek to tackle. However, in this setting, the combination of green time with making a valued contribution to a physical space – that represents connection, culture and pride – has been an incalculable antidote to students' stress. A small seed of mental resiliency has been sewn and the students are primed for life's future adversities outside of the school gate.

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