Located in a small town in the Netherlands, where agricultural higher education and rural life meet, is the Droevendaal Food Forest, an experimental food forest (or forest garden as some call it) on the campus of Wageningen University. It’s a fascinating place, not in the least because of the complexity of relations it addresses, and the focus that is laid on understanding the community built around it. I, having come to this university to learn how nature and agriculture can coincide, have fallen in love with this food forest and in particular the Ecoliteracy Programme. Ecoliteracy is a young branch of educational philosophy inspired by such authors as David Orr and Fritjof Capra and the food forest made their own adaptation of it.


The ecoliteracy programme is a co-creative course that school children (ages 8-12) have in their curriculum besides their other subjects like maths, history and language. The children come to the food forest every week and not just for a yearly field trip to learn how to read the landscape. The programme aligns with the permaculture ethics and principles and these take a central space in shaping the activities. I’ve been involved with the programme for the last three years as a coordinator and have used the Children in Permaculture Manual quite a bit to adapt and inspire the new group of facilitators and school children to grow together. We use the concept of head, hands, heart and hara to provide an experiential learning space for all. (Hara is the centre of the energy of our body that we gain our core physical, mental, emotional and even spiritual health from. It comes from several eastern cultures and ties into the first three H’s). The children often bring in the eyes and feet aspect of permaculture to this equation as they like to see things for themselves and run all over the place to discover first-hand what is going on! The most important lesson I’ve learned from the programme is that all tasks can be an invitation to do things together and that by doing so the ‘finesse’ of community comes to life. This finesse is not easy to describe in words, but a few strings of words come to mind when I think of my own experience of this finesse. I think of “taking the extra 20 minutes to clean up thoroughly”, “actively listen to someone’s problem”, “sharing what you’ve learned with your loved ones”, “pro-actively wanting to get engaged in the activities”, “including plants and animals when talking about each other or us”, “openly expressing wishes and desires for the world” and “not being afraid to open up to someone new and get to know them”. For me, these are the intimate ways of thinking that only come about when we build trust and foster a caring behaviour for each other.

Designing a forest garden with children

With that in mind I set out to find out what children think about forest gardens to get a better insight as how to arrive at new designs through a co-creative, integrative process. I did this for my master thesis in Organic Agriculture. I won’t bore you with all the scientific jargon but I highly recommend you read my thesis if you are in search of a place to start thinking about designing with children (https://edepot.wur.nl/543680). Results illustrate that children will design the forest garden with the aim of creating fun spaces, emphasizing that this is where learning happens. The children expressed the desire to have elements that evoke care and wonder, such as interacting with animals and food from the forest that they can harvest and prepare themselves. They value an open, central space in the garden, as well as lots of water and out-of-sight places. Forest gardens meant for educational purposes should put aside specific learning structures in favour of providing a space that enables children to make connections without feeling obliged to participate. These new relations, that a forest garden inspires them to make, allow them to see themselves, their peers, their ‘teachers’ and the specific relation of food and nature that a forest garden is, in a new way. I hope that our programme can provide the inspiration for permaculture educators to find that ‘finesse’ of a community that food forests seem to highlight.

If you want to know more about food forest education or ecoliteracy you can contact me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Currently our team is looking for inspirational activities to do in food forests that bring about this finesse I mentioned. If you have ideas or suggestions, please reach out!