A project simulating the trials of parenthood gets children thinking about the real issues. Report by Douglas Blane. Photographs by Ashley Coombes.
The really great lessons - the ones you remember all your life - often stray close to the dizzy edge of disaster. When Amanda O'Byrne decided to give her young pupils a chance to learn for themselves how heavy a responsibility a baby can be, she realised she was treading on dangerous ground. Her first thoughts, inspired by an episode of Frasier, were to make the children carry around with them, every minute of the day, a baby made from two bags of flour.
11* = But some scenes are too horrible to contemplate, and the devastation that could be wreaked by 60 bags of flour in the hands of a classful of energetic kids is one of them. Not that Fernieside primary school in Edinburgh, according to headteacher Carol Cameron, bears much resemblance to a nice school. It is, she says, "just a bunch of 50-year-old Nissen huts".
She is too modest. Even the weathered exterior, fronted by blooming flowers and well-tended grass, looks appealing, and the interior is a delight, with corridors and classrooms adorned with children's paintings, and an impressive array of shiny new computers.
Big plastic bottles dressed up in cardigans, and bonnets with a head full of cotton-wool, could provide a lot of hilarity, but there is no hint of this in the children's attitude to the project. Some are clearly quite attached to their charges, despite the constant attention they require and the physical burden of carrying them.
The secret of enlisting their co-operation in a project designed to be difficult and uncomfortable - "We wanted them to realise a baby changes your life" - lay partly in the preparation, and partly in one little detail without which the project could, the teacher is sure, have been a complete failure.
"I got the kids prepared by calling it Magic Monday for a few weeks, so they were geared up for something exciting. On the day, I had a bag of materials laid out for each of them, and I came in and said: 'Today we're going to make babies.' It took about an hour and every one of the kids loved it. But they were thinking it was for some kind of show. Then I demonstrated how to hold the baby and told them to think up a name, because now they had to look after them."
For a whole week the Primary 6 children - mostly 10-year-olds - did their schoolwork with one hand while holding the baby with the other. There was no playtime, because the little nuisances could not be left unattended and no matter how hungry the children were at lunchtime, baby had to be attended to first. The only respite was when classroom assistant Angela Grant occasionally baby-sat for them.
Amazingly, at the end of the first week, a few of them still thought babies were cute. "Some of them were enjoying it too much," says Ms O'Byrne. "So I came up with the idea of a tape of a baby crying, and if they looked like they were having it easy, I'd play the tape and they'd all have to nurse their babies. Then I'd pick one or two who had to walk up and down the corridor carrying their baby till it stopped crying."
The children were very keen to find out how good they could be as parents. But by the end of the second week of the project most of them were wilting. "Babies are hard work," says John, "and they become the boss." "People think babies are cute," says Paris. "They are for the first week."
In the interest of solidarity, Ms O'Byrne, too, had a baby on her arm, just like the pupils. "They saw me struggling and it created a kind of community atmosphere - we shared moans and complaints with each other. People had told me I was asking for trouble from the kids, but I had absolutely no problem. If I hadn't had a baby too, I think I migh have."
Besides improving their skills with spreadsheets - which the class used to work out the costs of keeping a baby - and desktop publishing, with which they prepared booklets describing the experience, the children learned a great deal about the responsibilities of parenthood. But their comments show that what they have gained from their unusual project is maturity rather than disenchantment.
"I liked learning how to look after babies," says Jordan. "I learned not to have a baby until you are old enough to care for it," says Nikita. "I learned that having a baby is not all cute outfits and faces," says Paris. "Babies," concludes an impish-looking boy known as DJ, "can be a pain in the neck."
MAKING THE BABY
A 2-litre plastic bottle filled with water and stoppered tightly
A nylon stocking
A sleep suit
A toy milk bottle
5 babysitting tokens
The stocking is stuffed with cotton wool to make the head, then pulled down over the bottle and knotted at the bottom. Thread tied round the top forms the neck, and the children paint the face. The baby is dressed and the sleeves and leggings of the sleep suit are filled with cotton wool. Each baby weighs 6 lbs. Sex is indicated by the colour of the bonnet.
SELINA'S SPREADSHEET OF COSTS
The state provides a one-off grant of pound;300
Item Shop Cost Number Total
Cot amp; mattress Mothercare 29.99 1 29.99
Disposable nappies Mothercare 2.99 10 29.90
Pram Mothercare 69.99 1 69.99
Fleece blanket Argos 29.99 1 29.99
Bodysuit Argos 6.00 2 12.00
Sleepsuit Argos 9.00 2 18.00
High chair Mothercare 12.99 1 12.99
Car seat Mothercare 49.99 1 49.99
Bath Babies R Us 15.99 1 15.99
Steriliser unit Tesco 24.99 1 24.99
Bottle Tesco 2.99 1 2.99
Teddy Mothercare 3.99 1 3.99
Links Mothercare 2.49 1 2.49
Soft toy rabbit Mothercare 1.99 1 1.99
Total cost pound;305.29
Comment: "I think it's hard to look after a baby and it costs too much."
The baby project was useful in motivating the children's learning of a variety of ICT and language skills.
First the new parents had to work out the initial costs of parenthood, so they looked up catalogues, searched Internet baby sites, and "bought" the items they needed for their new baby.
Then each of them prepared the information, along with photos of themselves and the ever-present babies, as a pamphlet.
The ICT skills they practised included scanning a photograph, cropping, resizing and framing it, searching the Internet for baby items, entering the data into a spreadsheet and printing the pamphlet. They also made a photo of themselves into a poster with a suitable caption.
The pamphlets were designed not just to provide a record of the project but also to help focus the children's thoughts and encourage them to write about them.
Together with the photos and the cost spreadsheet, each pamphlet included a description of the baby and the method of making it, as well as comments on what the child had learned from the project and which aspects they did and did not enjoy.
"The discussions between the kids were valuable," said Ms O'Byrne, "as they helped each other not just with the technical bits, but where to find the best bargains and what they actually needed to buy for the baby. They discovered that the pound;300 from the Government would not go very far - although one boy did manage to include a musical potty in his list!"