Tim Baker Headteacher, Charlton Manor School, Greenwich, and an NAEE Fellow, writes about a recent school trip to Cornwall.
On the farm
Recently I organised a trip for 6 pupils to stay on a farm in Cornwall for 4 days. During this time, they practised and learned skills such as fire lighting, shelter building and raft building, and got insights into life on the farm. Also, we went to Padstow and Truro, where they were given various tasks as they explored these urban areas. It was an exciting few days. An unusual aspect of this trip was that each child had one of their parents with them. The idea was for parents and children to work together, get experiences and write creatively, developing their vocabulary so that they could express themselves more effectively. The parents were also able to support language development, as part of the task was for pupils to write creatively either a poem, diary entry, report or story about their day’s experience, with support from their parent. These were then shared in the evening and discussed by the whole group. We also wanted parents and children to understand food growing on an agricultural scale.
The camp tasks were carried out in the morning and parents worked with their own child to support them. The parent group was made up of five fathers and one mother. They did not know each other before the trip but soon they were talking together and supporting occasionally each other’s children. In the afternoon, they went off in family groups to complete the tasks in Padstow on the first day, and Truro on the second.
An interesting observation was that the discussions when completing the camp activities were not always about the task. Children would often talk about their relationships with peers at school or with certain members of staff, or their siblings. I felt that the children were testing their parents’ reactions and feelings to certain situations by talking it through with them to gain approval or to be guided as to how they could or should react. Realising that this is an essential part of childhood development, I then thought about the limited opportunities that children get for this necessary experience during a typical day. Parents’ and carers’ lives have become very crowded and little time may be given to listen to children. In some homes, children can often feel isolated as parents may ‘push’ them away as they have little time to get necessary things done. Socialising for parents is also a lot easier with social media and many parents may be busy ‘talking’ with friends on Facebook or some other platform. Add to this the TV, computers, tablets and phones that children use, and you’re left with little or no meaningful adult interaction. Although meal times have traditionally been the place where children can get this necessary interaction, even sitting round a table talking has been lost to many families. This interaction is crucial for children as they need the guidance of their significant adults in order to understand their value and place in society.
What about schools?
The worrying thing about school is that we believe children can get this sort of interaction there. However, when we look closely at this, there is little or no time in an already crowded day for this. In class I note that when children speak about subjects other than the lesson they are gently reminded to keep their mind on their work, and focus. We talk about how good it is to have male role models in primary schools, but again these ‘role models’ have very little time to model their beliefs, values, attitudes, etc. as they are usually focusing on the lessons.
Meaningful time spent with children comes when the children can choose a subject for discussion that’s close to their hearts, or on their mind. These times happen during school trips, or when outdoors gardening or investigating. During such times, a much richer learning experience is possible because of the practical nature of what’s being done, but they also provide opportunities to discuss other issues such as pupils being able to ver-balise their concerns about the behaviour of an older sibling, a parent’s behaviour, or how they behaved in a certain situation. It allows them to gain an understanding of a respected adult’s opinion and whether they think what the pupil did was right, or if they could have dealt with it differently . These opinions expressed by the adults help the child develop their own core values and beliefs. It is only by creating these opportunities in school for some children that they are able to learn how to conduct themselves in a more appropriate way. Outdoor education allows this to happen while at the same time creating a rich learning experience. For example, observing bees pollinating a flower, searching for different types of seed and their design in terms of dispersal outdoors, not only enables the child to understand in a wider way, but also provides those in between times where children can gain that ‘guidance’ from adults in a non-threatening, non-labelling way. By limiting these opportunities, not only do we remove rich learning experiences in terms of curriculum areas, we also take away the opportunities for children to gain that much needed sense of identity, inner guidance and confidence.
In many schools, we have children that, through emotional need, have mental health problems. What we do is give them time with counsellors. What is this? It’s meaningful time with an adult where the child can choose the subject of discussion and receive some guidance as to how they can better deal with issues they face. This is an indication of how different society has become. For some children, home presents no opportunity for them to talk and find guidance and identity. However, the way many schools focus so heavily on classroom teaching, in the mistaken belief that this is better than a practical approach, staying focused on the subject produces tired teachers who can’t give time during breaks for a decent talk with their pupils, which is why we end up with children needing counselling. This needs to change for the future generations so that all pupils will see the possibility of a brighter future. Meanwhile, thank goodness for outdoor learning.
This article was first published in NAEE’s 2017 journal, Environmental Education (Vol. 116). To read more articles like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.