In order to further develop and promote the idea of school gardens as an integral part of modern education in Serbia, Ekonaut became a part of the European Network of School Gardens and the "School Gardens Goes Europe" project in June. Besides educational institutions such as schools of all types and kindergartens, the network brings together various non-governmental organizations, foundations, and European universities that support and nurture the pedagogical component of school gardens as a tool in regular education. Through our membership in the network, representatives of the Ekonaut association had the opportunity to witness positive examples of education, therapy, and rehabilitation through horticultural activities in therapeutic gardens and ambient spaces in the Czech Republic. They also attended a meeting of the School Gardens Network of Europe partners in Austria. The network sees its mission as addressing one of the great challenges of today, which is education based on the goals of sustainable development. This entails acquiring the skills, knowledge, and values necessary for a future worth living, a future that is open to healthy lifestyles, biodiversity, and overall ecological coherence.
Together with representatives of partner organizations from Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Germany, and Serbia, we participated in a study trip organized by the Network for its members. The journey began with a visit to the arboretum and therapeutic gardens within the Kociánka Rehabilitation Center in Brno. The center's mission is to rehabilitate children and adults with developmental disabilities through a modern concept of professional, social, and healthcare services, providing them with support in education and integration into society through hypo and horticultural therapy. Horticultural therapy, which involves caring for and nurturing plants, is highly effective in improving the health and general condition of individuals with various degrees and intensities of developmental disabilities. It is a common activity in kindergartens, schools, and hospitals in many countries in Western Europe.
We then familiarized ourselves with the work of the Rudka sensory garden in Kunštát, a small town near Brno. The garden has existed since 2009 and was originally intended for blind and visually impaired individuals. It features a variety of plants with characteristic scents, interesting textures, or flavors. The garden has numerous tactile and auditory elements, as well as sculptures made of local stone or pottery. Initially designed for people with disabilities to facilitate their connection with nature, the garden has generated significant interest over time and is now open to anyone who wishes to test their senses.
We then visited the rehabilitation institute Hamzova near the city of Luže. The institute is located within an arboretum established in the early 20th century. The pleasant environment was primarily used for therapy, dietary treatment, exercise, and outdoor activities in fresh air and sunlight. It was here that chronically ill children were first taught outdoors. Today, the park within the Hamzova institute is a cultural heritage site and part of the network of botanical gardens in the Czech Republic. The institute also houses a scientific classroom where children receiving treatment learn about nature and ecology. The classroom programs are designed for all age groups and are used by local educational institutions, including kindergartens, primary schools, secondary schools, and vocational schools.
In the Řestoky kindergarten in the village of the same name, we learned how local preschool children play and learn in harmony with nature. In collaboration with parents, the educators have created a stimulating environment with multiple different zones in the front and backyards where children can freely play and engage. The kindergarten received the "Natural Garden" plaque for promoting environmentally friendly gardening principles. The staff focuses on selecting and cultivating plants that naturally belong to the local landscape, and children are involved in every step of the process. They sow and plant the seeds, care for the plants throughout the season, harvest the fruits, collect seeds, and after drying, the seeds are packed, labeled, and distributed to interested members of the local community.
We were particularly delighted by the visit to the Eco Center established by our Czech hosts from the Chaloupky Foundation, which organized our journey through the Czech Republic. The Foundation operates a network of eco centers in various parts of the country, with a mission to introduce the wonders of nature to children, youth, and adults, enabling them to become environmentally responsible. The eco center we visited is located on a former farm within the Balinské údolí Nature Park, in the village of Baliny, near Velké Meziříčí. The center offers one-day programs for kindergartens and primary schools, including programs for children with specific educational needs. The programs are inspired by seasonal changes in nature, living and non-living organisms, local ecosystems, history, and folk traditions. Recently, they have also implemented a program on climate functioning on planet Earth. The center and the foundation organize camps, clubs, and groups, prepare natural science competitions, and provide training for teachers and educators.
The meeting of network members ended with a partner gathering in Austria and a visit to Die Garten Tulln,a horticultural attraction for all garden enthusiasts. Opened in 2008 as a state garden exhibition, Die Garten Tulln showcases 70 purely ecologically maintained exhibition gardens. It serves as an inspiration for hobby gardeners and has become a unique project in Europe. Since its opening in 2008, it has attracted over 3 million garden lovers from around the world. Throughout the area, gardeners strictly adhere to the criteria of "Nature in the Garden," maintaining areas without the use of chemical-synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, or peat.
As part of the final activities of the "School Gardens Goes Europe" project, we had the opportunity to present the work of the Ekonaut association and our experiences in working with school gardens and sensory gardens, among other partners. Sabina Kerić, the president of the association, took the opportunity to introduce the association's projects to the gathered partners, followed by discussions on further collaboration possibilities and the challenges encountered by the school gardens network. During the concluding meeting, the partners reached an agreement on how to further develop joint projects and work on involving new partners from Serbia and the Western Balkans, with the aim of strengthening the network and sharing a wealth of good practices within the Network's framework.
Inspired by the examples we have seen and the experiences of the network partners, in the coming period, we will initiate projects in collaboration with local and international collaborators and partners that contribute to the introduction of educational gardens in school and kindergarten yards. Our goal is to create an authentic learning environment for children in their most sensitive period of development, providing them with basic knowledge to understand ecological challenges and tools to address them. In the long term, with the support of the Network and local stakeholders, we aim to establish resource centers for school gardens in Serbia and build a network of schools, kindergartens, and educators, accompanied by the continuous publication of educational materials that can be used in educational programs. We believe it is crucial for every child to have the opportunity to learn how food is grown, understand the concept of healthy eating, gain insights into life cycles, and become aware of the importance of seasonal and locally grown food. Furthermore, we believe it is essential for children to spend more time in contact with nature and learn from it.