technology

App helps Kiwi kids find their green thumbs

South Auckland school children are learning how to grow vegetables with the help of an augmented reality app.

“The technology is new; the information is age-old. It’s bringing that back to people,” said Paul Dickson, founder of gardening charity, Oke.

The app leads children through a week-by-week guide, with an animated character, teaching them what vegetables to sow, tend and harvest.

Dickson said children who have used the app said they loved how cute the character is.

“They like that the character is animated. Rather than just being told what to do they can follow the actions as well.”

The app is part of the charity’s attempt to increase the amount of fruit and vegetables in local children’s diets.

Dickson has been helping South Auckland schools by giving them a $10,000 gardening package which includes raised garden beds, a greenhouse, a garden shed and gardening tools.

But ensuring gardens flourish after they are set up is not always easy for the small charity.

“It’s hard for me to visit the schools as often as I would like," Dickson said. The feedback from the schools is they love what we are doing in terms of building the garden, but we lack the future-proofing.”

Dickson had seen printed resources gathering dust on bookshelves.

“The children are now much more willing to try different things. Their tastes buds have broadened.”

“I thought, I don’t want another folder of garden stuff stuck there, never used.”

Dickson connected with local augmented and virtual reality development company, Conical, through AUT Ventures and asked them if they could build an app.

“They’ve been unbelievable. They took our logo and from that created a character.”

The app works on Android and Apple devices. Currently it only contains autumn gardening tasks.

Dickson said funding to complete the other seasons has been secured.

“Initially I was thinking about the kids' access to fruit and veggies but two years on, fruit and veggies are just the by-product of the garden,” said Dickson.

Feedback from schools is the gardens have given the children both life skills and social skills and have brought the community closer.

Gardening has also had an impact on behaviour. Dickson said a group of students with behavioural issues were given a garden to look after by their school.

“They turned it [the garden] around within two or three months. They turned around their performances. They’re just off the charts, because they have ownership of something, something tangible, they can say, 'No leave it, that’s mine', and they can take care of it and really want to embrace it.”

Papatoetoe West School’s principal, Diana Tregoweth, said the garden installed by Oke in 2015 has helped students’ learning and positively affected student’s diets.

“The children are now much more willing to try different things. Their tastes buds have broadened.”

Her observation is backed by international studies which have found school gardens not only increase the variety of vegetables students eat, but the amount too. 

Diet plays an important role in health issues. The incidence of type 2 diabetes, which can be managed with diet and lifestyle, is rising by 3 to 5 percent per year for Auckland children according to a recent study published in The Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health

Dickson, who has installed gardens in eight South Auckland schools, said the charity has a lot of work left to do.

“There are 110 primary schools in South Auckland, from Māngere to Pukekohe. South Auckland has the biggest population of school kids in New Zealand. By concentrating in this area, we have the biggest impact.”

His latest garden was installed last week in Papatoetoe South School. After the working bee members finished building the garden beds he showed the principal and staff members the app.

“They said ‘This is gold, we love what you’ve done with the garden build, but we are not sure what to do with it now. Having this, we’ll know what to do week by week’.”

Dickson is hoping once the app is updated to include winter, spring and summer growing guides he will be able to secure further funding to add STEM learning activities which will fit with the New Zealand Curriculum.

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