Another guest post. Thank you Kath! Here she’s sharing her experience of getting involved with her twin boys. Yup…
It all started in the spring of 2010 when I was at our local children’s centre in Walthamstow, east London, reading their latest newsletter: ‘Do you have a few hours to spare? We need volunteers to help with our garden…’ That was it – as someone who had just become a single parent of two-year old twins and had always been a keen gardener, I was more than ready to find a way to connect with my local community and get my hands dirty, partly as a form of horticultural therapy to help me through a seriously challenging time in my life.
I volunteered there for three years. At first it was just me, pottering about and tidying up the raised beds on the decking area – while the children played at the stay and play session going on around us, and parents and little ones wandered over from time to time to join in or talk about their growing experiences. Most of the time, my children were happy to come and go and help me out with most things – after all, digging and watering are generally very popular with the under fives.
By the second season, a small group of other volunteers appeared as if by magic – some of the staff and students from the ESOL class, another retired woman with a background in literacy and supporting learning, a retired man with an interest in helping children learn about bugs and creepy crawlies, and another single mum – which made four single parents in total volunteering on this project. You would think single parents have the least amount of spare time going, but perhaps we need the social support more immediately than some, and we grabbed the chance to be there for each other by developing our growing project.
Pros and cons
It has been challenging at times: with toddlers, their needs are immediate, and there’s no time to hang around when someone needs the toilet when toilet training, or is still hungry having eaten all the snacks available, or doesn’t want to sit and sing ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ with the rest of the group anymore. And when siblings get bored, they annoy each other just to get some attention. Dealing with this during a group session is not easy and I think sometimes I expected more from my children than was perhaps fair on them for their stage of development.
As the play staff got to know the children better, they became used to looking out for both boys going in opposite directions, or playing in different rooms from each other, or crying for mum, etc. I would suggest that when you are volunteering over a longer period, particularly with more than one child, there need to be adults there who are not attached to any children but can provide general support as and when needed. This makes it so much easier to get the jobs done that need to be done, while acknowledging the different needs and attention spans of children of different ages and abilities.
Up until they were about four, the boys joined in with most of the gardening activities at the allotment, and even enjoyed showing some of the younger ones how to do certain things. Once they were approaching school age, one or both often didn’t want to come along, or if they did come, they had their own ideas about what to do. If you can, have someone on hand you can leave one or both children with for those days when one of them is ill or really doesn’t want to come along, and when you are committed to going that session. This is easier said than done, and my attendance started to wind down in the last year for that reason.
If you can get everyone to the session, I believe it’s healthy for children to learn to cope with being bored, and that group activities carry on even if they are bored. But when they start trying to find other ways of entertaining themselves that younger children may try and copy – such as climbing up and jumping off the roof of a toy playhouse, then it doesn’t work so well. Once your energy is more taken up with dealing with behaviour issues rather than facilitating the work of the session, it’s time to have a rethink.
Winding down and moving on
Once the children started primary school, or even before, I decided I wouldn’t continue with volunteering other than to support occasional events. Now, we keep a connection with the friends we have made, while other parents with younger children take on running weekly sessions and developing the project.
Low Hall Gardening Club is going from strength to strength: the project came second in last year’s Capital Growth competition for London-wide learning gardens, which was a fantastic boost for us, and you can see some of our work here.
It’s been an amazing journey that has had many positive results for all volunteers and their children, and we’ve built something long lasting and hopefully sustainable.
I haven’t turned my back on volunteering – but paid work and study have to take priority for a while. When another opportunity arises and it fits with our family, I’ll certainly do it again.
Kath Farrell, Community gardener and freelance editor
Follow me on twitter: @kathfarrell