Interview with Janet Millington

Janet Millington is the co-author of the book Outdoor Classrooms that is coming together with Carolyn Nuttall in May 2016 to Europe to hold a series of workshops on how to engage children in permaculture.

Where do you see the highest value of permaculture?

Permaculture has gathered together, trialed, refined, and improved practices that can reduce the rate at which we use Earth’s resources and how we can regenerate the land we have damaged. It is the only ethically based approach to production and restoration and is in my opinion the only choice for a quality lifestyle for future generations.


What is your story of engaging children in permaculture? How long have you been doing it?

Although I created gardens with children in the early nineteen seventies, then took on Permaculture in 1978, the full potential for learning that could improve both natural and human systems did not become apparent until 1995 when I studied with Geoff Lawton and then Bill Mollison. I went on to teach with Bill and increase my skills and knowledge for the next several years while extending my understandings in developing my own Permaculture site. I was then introduced to a group of equally committed teachers and trainers and went on to work with them in writing our Nationally Accredited Permaculture training package that offers Certificates I, II and III as well as a Diploma in Permaculture which we handed over to Permaculture International (now Permaculture Australia) freely.  I then co-wrote the Train the Training Course for Permaculture Trainers and delivered the Train the Trainer courses around Australia. Seeing that there was potential to have Permaculture in High Schools, I began to put more energy into the Primary School Education. Although I was a primary teacher for 22 years I had not taken it into schools at first, but supported our local Permaculture Group in their PermiKids initiative and helped develop and run weekend and holiday permaculture experiences for children. Parents and teachers who had studied Permaculture began coming to me to establish school gardens; so many I could not get to them all. Carolyn was experiencing the same and after meeting at a conference in Adelaide, we decided to write a book that could reach all teachers and parents.


Do you like to take advantage of child curiosity and child led play when engaging children in permaculture?

Being a small, blonde, female young teacher, my only method to manage a class was through engagement. My motivation techniques were, and have always been, to make the learning fun and meaningful to the children, arousing children’s natural curiosity and sense of wonder I have designed learning experiences even within narrow constraints of various curriculum demands. I have always understood that for a child to learn they must first have a sense of self-worth and a trust in their teacher that they are valued and that the teacher is able to take them on a learning journey worth going on. It is also essential that they have the skills and understanding to enjoy and take advantage of those other learners on the same journey. I once famously stated to a group of parents and teachers that; “I don’t teach children to read, write or do math. I lead children to know and love themselves, each other and the world and to love to learn. When I do that they learn all the other stuff all by themselves.”


Children are naturally Permaculturists. They observe and explore, act and test. When children’s first playgrounds and schools were natural systems, then they learned those things that are essential. When they were led on their learning journey by those that knew and loved them and who would one day depend on them for their life, the learning was done with love and care, taking notice of readiness and developmental stages.


Do you also have experience in working with preschool children?

I worked in a pre-school in my holidays as a teacher trainer in 1968-69. They were very different then. There was no curriculum but a lot of learning was going on. I could see the potential for learning programs, but at the time the theory was that children were not to be “taught” (different from learning) in these centres as not all children had the same “opportunity”. There was a concern that those who could already do school work would be bored and cause “trouble” while the others were catching up.


I worked with my own two children as pre-schoolers and now with my grandchildren. I presented to a National Early Childhood Conference in Sydney in 2009.on the Outdoor Classroom in Early Childhood Education.


Do you also teach adults?

I have worked in tertiary education since 1994 with students from 16 to 70, teaching a variety of subjects in Colleges and Universities. My main work has been in teaching the Permaculture Deign Certificate and in training trainers.


What were the high points, what were the low points, what was your funniest moment engaging kids in permaculture? What are you most proud of?

The highs are getting a nationally accredited permaculture course in Australia, writing the book with Carol, some of the PDC courses I have taught, facilitating an Energy Descent Action Plan for our region, getting an Australia Day Award for the work on our property. The low point is having to sell our property. The funniest moment… when I showed a class an image of Earth in space and a child went out of the room to find her class teacher yelling, “Did you know there is nothing under us?” I think the child wondered why her teacher had not told her such a really important thing or maybe she was looking for reassurance that this was not a new thing and that everything would be the same even if she now knew she was on a tiny ball endless space.

I am proud of the adults my children have become, of the results of my career, the book, my property and the grandchildren and how they are developing.


How did the two of you meet?

We had met at earlier conferences but Carol was always reserved and we didn’t spend any time together really. I admired her so much and was astonished that she rang me after the Adelaide Conference to see if we couldn’t work together as she too had too many requests for help in school gardens.


Carolyn and Janet won regional award for environmental contribution.


How do you complement each other?

We are totally different in so many ways, yet so very similar in our values and hopes. It is the way we process that is so different and that can be a bit frustrating at times. Although we see the same thing, and come out with similar and complementary concepts at the end, the way we get there is so astoundingly different it is a miracle we work so well together. We each cannot do what the other does because our brains are wired so differently. The way we think and process and work are different, yet we have a deep respect and fondness for each other. I have a firm belief that what we do together is better than what we would both do alone.


What was the impulse to write Outdoor Classrooms?

To reduce our workload and get the concept running in as many schools as possible without having to turn up and explain it to each school. Many school gardens that were set up to provide food for the school kitchen were collapsing because they were produce and product oriented and not about what could be learned from the garden. We believed the use of the garden would maintain them and keep them going.


What was the response to the book from around the world?

We wrote it with Australia in mind and knew it would be helpful in other countries but it was the Australian context we addressed. I am very proud to say the book has been accepted with a huge amount of gratitude here. I see the way teachers hold the book and know it is almost cherished. We tried to make it logical and address each issue in a positive and supportive way. The wonderful illustrations by Mary-Anne and Kaye add to the sense of fun. We wanted it to be a book the teachers wanted to read after school. We insisted that each page have a picture that made it friendly and stimulated their imagination of what could happen in their school.


How often Australian schools have an outdoor classroom or a garden?

This is hard to quantify as they come and go- but at this time, many more are coming than going. I am aware that nearly every of the 300 schools in my region have a garden or outdoor learning area of some kind. How it is used is another thing. We have about 5 of the Stephanie Alexander kitchens which require a vegetable and herb garden to produce food. Schools are now seeing what can happen in learning beyond that and I am attaching the “How far to Take it” sheet to show how schools can use the garden to advance the key learning areas and beyond. We work with schools at nearly all the levels and one that is pushing into the top two levels.


Is it a common practice to have lessons outside?

It is less common than it used to be. School grounds in urban areas can be very small as property values are high. The climate is harsher and people in general are softer. We have become a nation of air-conditioning users, with a learned comfort zone of 16-28 degrees. Our sun cancer rates are the highest in the world. We can be either blazing hot with temperatures over 35 degrees or being drenched in torrential rain or both. Heatstroke is always a concern with children and outside it is hard to regulate body temperature on days over 30 degrees. The outdoor classroom can provide shade and shelter and food forests can modify climate. The early morning is best outside in Australia but teachers fear that those hours are best for the basic skills when children are fresh. The veranda pots and beds just outside the classroom are the easiest to use and more likely to be used as children can be there for a short or long time and be close to the room if it gets too hot or in a downpour. It is hard to schedule outdoor work in Australia that fits into a school timetable. This will be explained in the Eumundi School Experience in the workshop.


What is the biggest challenge you recognize at working in the outdoor classroom?

As above, our climate is harsh in many places in Australia but the next obstacle is the teacher’s attitude. Those who have some idea of the future know how imperative the work is. The large proportion of Australian teachers come from comparatively comfortable backgrounds (of the middle class) and have not explored challenges in our future and what that may mean for the children in their classrooms now. They accept without question or creative thought the dogma of the curriculum. Getting permaculture to the mainstream is our biggest challenge. Only then will the demand for gardens and outdoor learning experiences be driven by parents and later by government and public policy. It has been my experience that once a teacher understands Permaculture they want to share it with their students and become very passionate in that work which in turn refreshes their interest, excitement and enthusiasm for teaching. That is where our book comes in!


What are benefits you have noticed at working with children outside? Why?

Children have more energy and enthusiasm if the task is properly introduced and explained because the task is real and they are able to see and touch and move around. They can share with others and see results of their previous actions….rather than more writing in books, their learning journey is marked by fruit and flowers, growth and abundance. There may be herbs and vegetables to eat or share to mark the input of their energy and skills.

Contact with the soil grounds them and the sun nourishes their bones. The fresh air fills their lungs, while the senses are stimulated by different shapes, colour and patterns, the sounds of nature and the smells of earth and life.


What are the benefits for teacher to work outside and why?

Nothing is more rewarding that having happy and engaged learners working on tasks designed to deliver the outcomes of the curriculum in a way the children see as fun. The enthusiasm usually lasts long after the return to the room and can be used to hasten completion of other classroom work so that they can once again enjoy the outdoors.


What will happen at the two day workshops that you will offer in Europe?

Teachers can expect to learn about the Australian experience of Outdoor Classrooms. We hope to have images that will stimulate their interest and give them ideas of what can be done in their own situations. They will be taken through similar steps to those who have gone on to success in teaching outdoors in Australia. We hope to engage them as learners and take them on a journey that they can then take others on once they have gained experience and certainty. We hope to leave them with a confidence in the approach and in a network that can support them and extend the approach in ways that will be specific to the context of each school, staff and community.


What is the key message you want to deliver?

Outdoor learning is worthwhile.

We have done it.

You can do it.

You can teach others to do it.

Each of us can take the approach as far as our imagination, skill and sense of need will take it.


What is currently your biggest project in life? The most challenging?

Currently preparing for the tour is the biggest thing in my life as I know how important it is for teachers in Europe to have the best guidance possible. I struggle to ensure that what we present is relevant and that we have prioritized correctly those things that teachers need to know. I wonder if what we say and do will be culturally relevant and appropriate. I hope that being who we are and telling what we know and do will be enough. The knowledge that we only get one chance in each venue to meet the needs of the organizers and the participants is daunting and so I have spent a lot of time preparing electronic materials as references and worksheets, templates and presentations. I also hope that because we have two very different styles and ways of working that what we deliver is not repetitive and that we have made the best use of the short time we have. I feel a sense of responsibility to represent permaculture, our learning approach, Australia and each other in the very best way. My challenge is that we have done enough.