Mary-Alice Williams, garden-based curriculum

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Image: Mary-Alice with her students in the garden. Courtesy of courtesy of Allenby Gardens Primary School.

Profile: Mary-Alice Williams, primary specialist master teacher, SA

Professional Career

I began teaching at a mobile toy library in Port Augusta. This position offered me the chance to explore the Flinders Ranges, work with station owners and their children and begin my journey to understand the need for sustainability in education.

My work subsequently led me to rural, remote and hard-to-staff schools across South Australia. For 22 years I taught in schools in Port Augusta, Coober Pedy, Balaklava, Ceduna and Kadina as a class teacher, primary student counsellor, literacy and numeracy coordinator, early years literacy coordinator, acting deputy, Aboriginal education resource teacher and English as a second language tutor. I am also a qualified dyslexia tutor. In 2009 I moved to Adelaide and began teaching in an inner-western suburbs school.

How did you get into teaching sustainability?

I was on the science committee at Kadina Primary (2007–8), tasked with trialling and implementing the Primary Connection units. As part of the trial, the science committee set up a whole-school science fair in science week on Antarctica. I set up a water-based theme for the Junior Primary section of the school that included sustainable activities around water. It was a highly successful day with all of our staff, students and parents fully engaged. As a result of this day the students researched water usage and pollution across the school and in the local community. Other student outcomes included articles about saving water published in the school newsletter and local newspaper, water-saving posters displayed around water areas of the school and pamphlets developed for parents and households to save water.

In 2009 I transferred to Allenby Gardens Primary School, my first ever city school, and I noticed a need for the school to establish a consistent approach to science, including sustainability. I assisted in implementing and setting up the Primary Connection units and worked with the school leadership to establish and report on the new Primary Science Australian Curriculum.

Professional development has enriched my practice and opened up many learning spaces for me to link my teaching to the Australian Curriculum. In particular:

  • Learning through Play and Exploration by Marc Armitage.
  • Kids Matter – for student wellbeing, improving attendance and engagement for student learning.   
  • John Hattie – Oral language.
  • Phonological Awareness in the Early Years through playful approaches with Connie Bache and Nicole Tregenza.


I co-wrote and won a South Australian-based grant to establish a school garden at Allenby Gardens through KESAB. The school garden opened so many opportunities for me to grow as a professional educator and leader. The regular inclusion of ICT to record and assess student learning has provided me with new skills, and the visual feedback is a very effective learning tool for the children (see case study: Foundation, in the garden).

My garden-based curriculum featured highly in my successful application to become a Highly Accomplished Teacher. The following chart demonstrates some of the ways the sustainability program has been connected to the Australian Teaching standards.


Teaching Maths, English and Science and Sustainability through the school garden has allowed me to integrate the Australian Curriculum and improve my professional practice as a teacher. Incorporating sustainability has differentiated my program and deeply engaged the children; it has also connected me more widely in the school and the community.

Taking learning outdoors and integrating core disciplinary areas gives students a wide range of entry points and improves attendance, engagement and learning outcomes. The natural environment, in and around the school, is a great meeting and learning place for a diverse community of students, staff, the school-parent community, the local council and support agencies such as Natural Resource Management (SA).