Taking the classroom to the farm
PUBLISHED: 11:43 25 August 2015 | UPDATED: 11:43 25 August 2015
Tessa Allingham is at Shimpling to learn what the Country Trust can teach our children
A pile of envelopes landed on the doormat the other day, big brown ones addressed in childish hands to Alice Pawsey and bundled up with a rubber band.
Alice had popped them through my letterbox with a covering note, which urged me to read them. So I did.
“Thank you for having us,” wrote one Year 3 visitor. “The grain store was my favourite bit because I got to touch some wool. The wool was soft but we thought it was extremely smelly.”
“We really liked it when you taught us how to shoot the plantain,” said another. “When we shot the plantain some of us used Mr Tunley as a target. I shot him in his leg and shoulder. It was fun.” Another was fascinated by the wheat trials.
“When we met Nick the scientist we looked at grass in fields. The black grass was a problem. I thought it was really cool that a scientist was working at the farm.”
The enjoyment evident in the children’s letters made perfect sense. I had watched this group from Woodhall County Primary School, Sudbury, spend an unforgettable morning clambering on hay bales (safely), bouncing along bumpy tracks in a farm trailer, learning how to twist plantain grasses into missiles, searching for four-leaved clovers, racing to identify fruit trees in the orchard and listening, silently, to the wind in the trees.
Shimpling Park Farm – the Pawseys’ organic farm not far from Lavenham – is a Country Trust host farm, one of 200 or so across the UK that welcome children from urban areas on day trips to the countryside.
“The charity aims to open up the countryside to children who wouldn’t otherwise see sheep in a field or a crop growing,” explains Jill Attenborough, trust chief executive. “I’m planning on bringing a group to our family strawberry farm near Chelmsford soon, so it’s great to see how Alice runs the day – she is brilliant at it!”
Indeed she is. Careful planning involves liaising with the visiting school’s teachers to make sure activities reinforce the curriculum, whether it’s calculating the area of a field, estimating the number of bean plants growing, or learning about the functions of roots, stems, leaves and flowers.
“Do you remember what this looked like when you last visited back in November?” Alice asks the children as we approach a bean field green with early summer abundance.
“Wow! It’s so tall, how did that happen?” Cue an explanation from Alice of the farming year, the cycle of crop preparation, sowing, growing and harvesting. Children crowd round here, absorbed by her lively chat.
She challenges them to identify the plants (hazel, blackthorn, hawthorn) that make up a newly-laid hedge before having them press clay, recently dug from an excavated pond in their hands. An explanation of soil types, drainage and irrigation follows naturally. The day is punctuated with pure fun.
“I have about 25 groups a year,” Alice says, “and I try and make every one a hands-on, unique, fun experience, and I always listen out for what’s gripping the children and adapt activities accordingly.” Back in the hay barn the children love the feel and smell of the hay bales that they jump off. They are amazed by the weight of them and listen readily to serious safety lessons.
A trailer ride is a highlight, class teacher James Ruse leading a loud rendition of – what else? – One Man Went to Mow, the children changing the words with great hilarity. James is as enthusiastic about the trip as the children.
“What we’ve seen and done today is great material for science lessons. But what I really value is the general ‘awe and wonder’ that the children experience. You see children who don’t flourish in the confines of a classroom come into their own, find their voice, find an interest. It’s wonderful to watch that happen.” Head teacher Lesley Farrow, herself a farmer’s wife, agrees.
“It’s fantastic to see the children experiencing the countryside for themselves rather than through a book or a YouTube clip. It gives them a real experience to draw on when it comes to creative writing – it’s not just about science – and it’s amazing what they remember months after the event.” Other life lessons are learnt too, ones of teamwork, problem-solving and co-operation with their classmates and adults.
The Country Trust charity was set up back in 1978 as a way of reconnecting children living in urban worlds with nature, farming and food production. Over the years it has built up a network of farmers and estate owners who invite school groups – often from inner cities – to spend time on a farm either on a day trip, as part of a residential visit or a year-long Food Discovery programme during which the focus is on teaching children to taste, grow, cook and even sell food.
Some 23,000 children enjoyed trips last year – thanks to fundraising they are provided at no cost to the schools – but with 600,000 British children qualifying for free school meals, and therefore officially ‘deprived’, Jill Attenborough admits it’s a drop in the ocean.
“I’m ambitious! I’d like every disadvantaged child in the UK to visit a real working farm at some point during their school life.
“I love the whole idea of engaging people with farming and bringing rural issues to life,” she says, “and to see that happening through the eyes of these children is so exciting. You can see how it expands their horizons. In the chaotic, stressful lives that some of them live, a day like this really can make a difference.” She looks up as Alice calls out from 100 yards away.
“When I blow this whistle, you can all run! Watch out for lumps in the grass, try not to fall over.” The children line up, excited, one of them grasps Lesley’s hand and off they go.