DUBAI // What was once a wide, empty terrace at Ranches Primary School has been transformed into a peaceful outdoor garden where children as young as five can meditate and grow fruits and vegetables.
Early years pupils visit the Rooftop Mindful Garden at least twice a day to calm their minds and nurture plants as part of a health awareness education programme the school is piloting with Sandy Seeds, a new company founded by three mothers in the UAE.
“It is important that we give the children a chance to relax, take some time out and refocus,” said Justine Bain, the company’s chief creative officer.
As the children file into the AstroTurf-lined patio, half of them migrate to box planters to water the herbs, eggplant, tomato, bean, watermelon, broccoli, radish and carrot plants they’ve been growing from seeds since the start of the academic year.
The others are led by their teacher to the opposite side of the garden where they lie on large, flat beanbag cushions to practise mindfulness exercises.
“Take a big breath up,” Helen Thompson, the foundation stage two teacher, said softly. As they inhale, the children use their left index fingers to trace the outline of their right hands. “One more time, trace it from the wrist to the top of your thumb, slowly, inhale, close your eyes and then you’re going to exhale down your thumb.”
Colourful wind chimes and dream catchers made in art class from recycled materials dance in the gentle breeze from the ceiling above the children.
A bright tepee wrapped in multicoloured ribbons is available for any child who wishes to sit in private. Go-kart tyres painted in pastel blue, green and yellow are arranged as seats around a stack of wood, like a campfire. Designing and decorating the area was a community effort involving parent volunteers, donated materials from nearby businesses and input from pupils and teachers, guided by Sandy Seeds consultancy, said principal of the Arabian Ranches school, Samantha Steed.
“We have to be inventive,” she said, noting much of the funding for the programme came from school bake and ice-cream sales. “The more you own it, the more proud you are. The more pride you get, the better your well-being is. It is this continuous circle. For us, we are seeing it as, it was once empty space and now we have birds in here and we would have never had birds before.”
Teachers receive mindfulness, gardening and nutrition training from Sandy Seeds, which also provides schools lesson plans to integrate into the curriculum, packets of organic seeds from Australia and planters.
A complete Sandy Seeds curriculum is expected to be ready by September.
“It’s flexible, that’s the whole point,” said founding partner Kamelia Zaal, an Emirati landscape designer. “Any school of any curriculum can choose different aspects of what Sandy Seeds does, whether it is teacher training or parent training or getting the kids involved in building a garden or the mindfulness aspect.”
Mrs Steed said the garden has helped to promote a culture of mindfulness and well-being among pupils and staff. Some teachers use the space for story time, while another plays his guitar for the class there.
“That is what schools used to be like; there used to be a time where your teacher could sing to you with a guitar,” said Mrs Steed. “Getting everybody on-board is the first thing, and we are lucky here because it is that kind of school. We want to have a calm school that is a happy and relaxed place to be.”