Hot off the heels from being named joint winner of the Best Group or Community Plot at the 2022 Newcastle Allotment and Garden Show, we spoke to Newcastle charity Children North East about the importance of their allotment plot at Benwell Lane in giving young people access to nature, and the chance to learn new skills.
The charity works with babies, children, and young people in their families, schools and communities to ensure they grow up to be healthy and happy.
Why does Children’s North East offer tending to an allotment as part of your work supporting children and young people in the region?
Children North East (CNE) want young people to be happy and healthy, and to grow up feeling safe and loved, resilient to the challenges they may face, and valued and confident.
We deliver services, support and initiatives that provide a platform for children, young people and families to work through issues, take action and provide them with the tools to reach their full potential.
CNE adopts a variety of forms to deliver its youth services. Our allotment initiative provides activities for young people such as growing vegetables, flowers and fruits, cooking, arts and crafts, and practical maintenance. Underpinning all these activities is a link to positive mental health. It also provides a safe environment for young people to spend time in and learn about nature, which opens up a space for them to talk about their lives and what may be happening for them.
What are some of the benefits children and young people experience by working on your allotment plot?
The benefits children and young people experience are as much about spending time in nature with their peers, away from phones and social media, as with growing fruit, vegetables and flowers. The pandemic led to feelings of isolation, disconnection and anxiety amongst young people, and our allotment enabled us to keep supporting young people and continue to offer group work that has mental health benefits.
There is a sense of pride in growing food to eat, planting wild flowers, or even leaving part of the plot untended as a mini wildlife reserve. It allows them to feel part of something bigger and realise their place within nature. The natural world is an inherent part of human nature but a forgotten part. Spending time in nature allows them to reconnect, slow down and forget about the chaos of their lives. This has been hugely beneficial for them.
What are some of the skills children and young people have developed?
Children and young people have learned how to prepare soil for growing and how to plant and look after crops. Often they are using tools for the first time and have little knowledge about when to plant and how long it takes for plants to grow. This has also made them more aware of the natural environment around them, and given them a desire to protect and preserve that.
An allotment offers many problem solving opportunities, for example our group used engineering skills – as one young person put it – to bolt together two wooden posts to hold up a tarpaulin for shelter.
We run regular arts and crafts activities and young people have learned how to cook on an open fire and use a whittling knife safely.
They have learnt positive coping strategies and felt the benefits of spending time in nature, which they can take into their adult lives.
Spending time in a safe, relaxing environment has allowed them to create strong bonds with other members of the group, build confidence and the ability to communicate more effectively with others.
Why do you think it’s important for children and young people to spend time in nature?
Many young people in our region do not have the opportunity to visit natural spaces or feel they are ‘for them’. Benwell Lane Allotments are an oasis in a bustling part of Newcastle and our allotment space has encouraged young people to spend time experiencing and learning about the nature around them; bringing a sense of calm to their often turbulent lives.
They have gone on insect hunts, fed the fish in the communal pond, studied evidence of foxes, and even watched parakeets flying overhead. We all need time in nature, the effects of it can be seen pretty quickly with young people who can arrive looking quite anxious but always leave with a smile and sense of calmness about them.
How does the wider community benefit from the work young people do on your allotment?
We are very aware that we are part of a community of allotment holders at Benwell Lane. The committee and other plot-holders have been very supportive of our efforts, lending a hand and offering advice and above all accepting our young people.
What does it mean to be named ‘best community plot’ at the Newcastle Allotment and Garden Show?
It is a huge validation of our efforts to be named ‘best community plot’. Having an award winning allotment has done wonders for our confidence and hopefully will help us to get support to make our work sustainable. In recent years youth services have been drastically cut and youth projects are becoming increasingly hard to maintain longer term.
How does working on an allotment help children and young people grow and develop as people?
Working on an allotment enables young people to try something new, develop confidence, self-esteem, and learn new skills.
The allotment environment promotes communication between youth workers and young people, and between young people and their peers.
We also had the chance to speak to some of the children and young people that visit Benwell Lane allotment plot with Children’s North East. Here’s what they had to say!
What do you enjoy most about tending to your allotment?
“I enjoyed pulling out the weeds, it was fun – it is satisfying.”
“I enjoyed making the bird feeders.”
“It was nice laying the grass seed and making the bird scarer with bells. It showed us we could craft.”
“When we were growing tomatoes and eating them after – it showed we took care of them properly.”
“I enjoyed eating the corn from the allotment – it was juicy.”
What new skills or talents have you learnt?
“We learned about how to dig, plant seeds and bulbs, putting them at the right depth.”
“I learnt how to use a knife, and build things.”
“Cooking on the fire.”
Why do you think it’s important for young people to spend time in nature and the great outdoors?
“It makes you feel good, refreshed and relaxed. I noticed that I can go without my phone.”
“Be at one with nature – really connect with plants and flowers. The place makes you feel relaxed and is a good activity when bored.”
“It’s like everything has just disappeared.”
To find out more about Children’s North East, visit children-ne.org.uk