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Hobby horses for courses

How do children discover a new pastime in their local community?

Nicki Household reports on a novel idea for a school fair.

Most communities have a variety of flourishing hobby and activity groups to cater for everyone from amateur astronomers to gymnasts, from drama enthusiasts to fossil hunters. They are also usually hungry for additional members to join their ranks. But if you are not yet a member, how do you find out about them?

For Newnham Infants and Junior School in Eastcote, Middlesex the solution to this problem was to hold an information fair.

Discovery '96 took place one Saturday before the end of the summer term. The school invited local and national organisations to set up stalls and show children and parents what they had to offer.

Of the many organisations that accepted the offer to exhibit there were all the well-known groups such as the Cubs, Brownies, Friends of the Earth, Oxfam and smaller, more esoteric ones like the local model club and a 17th-century battle re-enactment society.

Aimed at children from four to 12, the fair was open to all families who live locally, not just Newnham pupils (children had to be accompanied by adults but entrance was free) and information packs were sent out to 16 neighbouring schools.

Although Discovery '96 was the idea of parent David Keys, who has two children at the school, it was seized on with alacrity by headteachers Dave Kidner and Sue Hodges. "Like all good ideas, it seemed obvious once it had been suggested," says Dave Kidner. "We thought it would be a nice occasion for the school and provide the local community with a unique opportunity to see what was available, under one roof."

Far from considering primary age children to be a bit young for serious hobbies and interests, both headteachers believe that this is the ideal time to nurture and develop enthusiasms. "By the time you are in your teens your interests are set, so it's the primary years that are the crucial ones, " says Dave Kidner.

For Sue Hodges, Discovery '96 represented a welcome opportunity for children to realise that there are lots of exciting things they can do with their free time, besides sitting in front of the television. "I'm not anti-television, but children today spend so much time in front of TV and computer screens that their opportunities for interaction are limited. And they've had a great time finding out about all the different things they can get involved in."

The bright eyes of the children avidly roaming the exhibition certainly seemed to bear out her assessment. For 11-year-old James Newman, the best thing was a dissected owl pellet on the Ruislip Natural History Society stand. "You could see the owl had eaten a mouse because the bones were all there." But James also took home leaflets about the model club and the battle re-enactment group, whose members manned their stall in full costume.

Seven-year-old Emily Walker, who already belongs to her school gym club, was fascinated by a video of the young gymnasts in the local Swallows team, while her brother Daniel, aged nine, lingered at the Young Archaeologists and computer stands.

As parents, I think we vaguely knew these things existed," said their mother Kathryn Walker, "but it was a brilliant idea to get them all together in one place so you could talk to people on the spot."

Mary James, whose daughters Emma and Clare, aged eight and 10, decided they were interested in netball and gymnastics, feels that organised evening, weekend and holiday activities are more important now than when she was a child because children can no longer go out and play on their own. "When I was 10, I used to take my younger brother and sister to the park, but that's out of the question today."

For the stall-holders, who were charged nothing to be allowed to exhibit but were prohibited from selling anything except subscriptions and strictly educational items, Discovery '96 was nevertheless an ideal opportunity for them to reach young people.

Rawle Denis of English Heritage was delighted to have run out of leaflets, even though he hadn't signed up any new members. "We are really here to raise awareness," he said. "If you can make a mark with kids at this stage, it could be the start of a lifelong appreciation of history."

The total cost of Discovery '96 was about Pounds 150 for phone calls and paperwork, and David Keys reckons the organisation of the event was easy. "Our starting point was the public library, which keeps a comprehensive index of local clubs and societies."

Just three parents took responsibility for contacting possible exhibitors and approached around 70 organisations. Of these, 45 agreed to have stalls. Each organisation was asked to discuss fully what they would have on their stall and to pitch their exhibits at the age group. For example, the West of London Astronomical Society brought along a large telescope; the Geological Society displayed genuine pieces of plesiosaur next to a coloured illustration of the complete reptile.

"There have been plenty of information fairs aimed at teachers," says David Keys, "but as far as we know this was the first one aimed directly at parents and children. The basic idea was to tell local young families about all the things that are there for them. Above all, I hope it has fired the children's imaginations."

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