The unique permaculture garden growing sustainable kids
When considering what the future holds for our kids, the narrative is undeniably dominated by concerns for the environment. Will we have successfully curbed plastic pollution, or will they be fighting to save marine life? Will the world be unified on emissions, or will they still be negotiating their way through a political minefield?
With the health of the planet at stake, it’s never been more important to raise an entire generation that cares for the land on which we live. To deliver this culture shift in just one generational leap means instilling sustainable practices and care for the environment in them from their very first step—so that appreciation for nature is the norm, not the exception. This thinking means that your life choices are instinctively determined by the footprint you leave, not by what’s easiest or cheapest.
One school already seeing the success of instilling these practices in learners from the get-go is Sunshine Beach State Primary School. Since 2009, this unassuming school has been steadily nurturing their permaculture garden and outdoor learning program, which has become one of the most respected on the Sunshine Coast.
“With such expansive school grounds, we are incredibly lucky to have this natural space and eco biodiversity within the school footprint,” said Clair Allan, Head of Curriculum at Sunshine Beach Primary.
“Immersed in such unique bushland, care for our beautiful environment is part of everyday life at school. It’s not a specialist lesson or a place you visit and leave, it’s just part of being at Sunshine.”
Led by scientist, environmentalist and former university lecturer Di Seels, the permaculture garden at Sunshine Beach is truly a special place, with a serenity that’s difficult to put into words. Handcrafted timber benches circle a welcoming learning space that is surrounded by fruit trees. Recycled bunting flutters in the breeze and upcycled art hangs from the branches. It’s not a space that has been purpose-built. Rather, it has evolved and grown with the surrounding bushland; it’s part of the ecology, not simply placed ‘in’ the ecology.
Beyond the learning circle is extensive bushland that is rich in biodiversity—you’ll find koalas, tawny frogmouths, kookaburras, lizards, native bees, the rare Birdwing Butterfly and an abundance of other native flora and fauna. The school has also installed two beehives, a bush tucker growth zone, and two outdoor classrooms built by the Noosa Men’s Shed and funded by Noosa Biosphere. And the growing permaculture garden has gradually become intertwined with the greater school grounds.
“You’ll find pineapples growing in the school garden beds, and nature play spaces for our little learners,” said Di.
It starts with a wish
Every session in the permaculture garden begins with students coming through the ‘wishing tunnel’—a natural archway that forms a magical entrance to the learning circle.
“I like all the students to come through the wishing tunnel, so they are present and centred,” said Di. “We then always have an acknowledgement of country, which the children take turns in reading each week.”
“Most of all, I always try to ensure there is a little bit of magic in everything we do.”
Thanks to such a unique outdoor learning space, students at Sunshine experience contextualised learning and a connection to nature that is not achievable in the traditional classroom. And by embedding these practices into every aspect of school life, students tangibly understand their place in the world and the delicate balance of how all living things live together.
With the permaculture garden being such an intrinsic part of everyday life at Sunshine Beach, outdoor learning goes hand in hand with the curriculum at the school.
“As part of biological science, students may study habitats, life cycles and living vs non-living. In Design & Tech, they may design and build a beehive,” said Clair. “The curriculum is intertwined with our outdoor learning, so students have real-life, nature-based opportunities for learning.”
Teachers always come to the permaculture garden sessions with Di, so they can continue the conversations back in the classroom. “There are also plenty of opportunities for classes to use the garden outside the rostered permaculture sessions. They might come here for art, for quiet reading, or technology to undertake projects such as recording the butterfly growth,” said Di.
“It all ties in… we are all connected.”
Because the learning is real and meaningful to the students, it is rich and impactful, which means the school is raising enquirers, problem solvers and lifelong learners.
“It also engages all children, particularly those that might not engage so easily within the classroom,” said Clair.
“Through child-centred learning, children feel empowered and valued. The children thrive on so many levels,” said Di.
Sustainability starts with the youngest
The journey of raising the next generation of eco-warriors at Sunshine Beach starts well before Prep. Starting with the very youngest learners at the school, the Sunshine Beach Bush Playgroup is not your everyday playgroup. Run by teacher Bec Kennett, all the magic of Bush Playgroup happens in the permaculture garden.
There are a variety of hands-on activities ranging from kids just playing with the worms in the worm bath to creating clay creations. Volunteer nature specialist Bob Carey sometimes makes a guest appearance, sitting under the fruit trees and sharing his stories about the plants and animals in the surrounding environment.
And this hands-on approach to learning continues through every year level, with children undertaking a variety of special projects that will excite and engage every learner.
“The Year 5 Design & Tech project last year was ‘Design for Nature’. Students had to design, make and approve an item for the garden,” said Clair. “The learning that surrounded that project was phenomenal.”
A child-led Year 2 project on Resources was sparked from a sketch of a girl on a swing surrounded by paper lanterns. This evolved into a project on solar powered lamps titled ‘Light it up, Naturally’. This is soon to become a mosaic mural at the school.
“This is the magic of child-centred learning—the children come up with the most incredible ideas,” said Di.
The local community
The permaculture garden at Sunshine Beach has become so well-regarded in the surrounding community that there are now many local community groups who are on board with the program.
“We work with Slow Food Noosa and Noosa e-hub. We regularly have guest speakers, including Indigenous speakers, talk to the students,” said Di.
“We recently had the nutrition students from Bond University chat with our learners about eating locally and seasonal bush tucker food. They also did a fun session on bush tucker and healthy eating.”
“We had an unforgettable session about mushrooms when Scott Andrews from Tagigan Road Produce, an approved Slow Food Snail by Slow Food Noosa, came to visit,” Di continued.
To be a Slow Food Snail, you must prove your produce is locally sourced, 100% organic, and grown with earth friendly practices.
“After his session with the Year 1 students, Scott left a mushroom growth pack with each class,” said Di.
“Each class took their mushroom pack back to their classroom to study how they grow. We soon had huge mushrooms in the doorways of all the Year 1 rooms!”
“There’s nothing more fulfilling than seeing kids excited to come to school to see how their mushrooms are growing!”
The school’s links with the local eco community has led to an extensive list of exciting partnerships.
“We work closely with Noosa Biosphere and NICA (Noosa Integrated Catchment Association), who operate to protect the natural environment and achieve a sustainable future for everyone. There’s also Noosa Council, Noosa Landcare, Noosa Men’s Shed, Noosa Parks Association… the list is extensive, and we are so grateful for the involvement of all of the community groups,” Di said.
It is clear that these community connections further fuel the children’s passion for the environment and local living.
“When we discovered the endangered Birdwing Butterfly living in the bushland, the students were quick to see if they could get the plants established in their own gardens. The Richmond Birdwing Butterfly will only lay eggs on that specific vine and it’s a very fussy plant. However, Coolum Native Nursery agreed to donate 50 plants and will help us to plant them, so they will hopefully thrive.”
This richness of learning extended through such important community connections shows the power of child-centred change.
“You never know, the students actively working to increase the number of Richmond Birdwing Vines could mean the difference between extinction or not for this beautiful butterfly.”
And when children become advocates for a better future, they bring this back to their parents. “They will readily call out parents for using plastic bags, and upcycling and reusing is second nature to them all,” said Di.
“I do believe this generation will change the world, and we can see them already creating real change for the better,” said Di.