Pastures new

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
Phil Revell visits a working farm and finds out how children can benefit from a rural visit

Any teacher who fails to capitalise on a visit to a working farm needs to consider a change of career.

There's the combination of children and animals; the links to science, geography, technology and PSHE; plus the opportunities for speaking and listening, group work and empathy. Above all, there's the chance to help children understand what's involved in the journey that our food makes from field to plate.

But most modern farms are intensive agribusinesses; there are potential dangers from machinery and muck, and few have the facilities to host a class of Years 1 and 2; which is why Diana Chadwick, a teacher at the tiny St Andrew's Church of England primary school, took her class to Shropshire's Acton Scott farm museum.

St Andrew's is a rural school serving the village of Nesscliffe, north of Shrewsbury. "But only three of the class live on farms, and on a modern farm you don't see the mix of animals that you see at Acton Scott," says Diana.

Acton Scott is a working farm; the museum aims to recreate rural life as it would have been just after the First World War. There is the full range of farm animals, including shire-horses, and fields are worked using the Norfolk four-crop rotation of wheat, barley, turnips and hay.

Most school visits begin in the classroom where there's the opportunity to don smocks, mob caps and pinafores before doing some chores - egg collecting and acorn hunting for the pigs.

The museum offers a wide range of activities for groups, mainly aimed at key stages 1 and 2. Visitors looking for a history focus could opt for the "Victorian child", where children take on the identities of the pupils who attended Acton Scott school in 1881. They do some real farm work which, according to the season, might be stone picking, haymaking or potato lifting.

The St Andrew's group followed a module called "Humans and Other Animals".

Their guide was Graham Pennie, an ex-secondary science teacher, who told the children about the crops that grow at the farm and what the different animals eat.

The children were shown animal skulls so that they could see the different kinds of teeth, and then they went out into the pens for the highlight of the day - feeding the animals. They fed the lambs with a bottle, offered chopped roots and hay to the shire-horse and saw that food for the hens had to be mixed with enough grit to enable the birds to digest it. "It's brilliant that they are allowed to touch the animals," said Diana.

That's another difference between a modern farm and Acton Scott. The animals at the museum are used to being handled, and the museum guides are fully aware of the need to ensure that children wash their hands thoroughly afterwards.

After a packed lunch and a "letting off steam" session in the museum's maze, the children watched the milkmaid churning the milk for butter; then they saw a farrier at work - and took turns at pumping the forge bellows.

Back at school the children have been working on speaking and listening activities with the digital photos taken on the day. "It was well worth it," said Diana. "The children haven't stopped talking about it."

Acton Scott Farm Museum, Shropshire. Education officer Sarah Griffiths can help schools plan their day. Tel: 01584 813650; email: sarah.griffiths@shropshire-cc.gov.uk. A typical activity costs pound;30 plus pound;1.75 per child admission. See www.farmsforschools.org.uk for a list of commercial farms able to host school visits

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