Graham Hart welcomes a truly child-centred approach to geography on television
GEOGRAPHY JUNCTION: TAKE TWO SRI LANKA MEETS THE UK. Channel 4. Mondays 9.30-9.45am. Age range: 10-12.
There was a 1960s anthem by a group called Love that contained the line "People are the greatest thing". Wrong. Young people are the greatest thing. At least that's the impression you get from this series. Children are very much the stars of these five programmes that compare life in the UK and Sri Lanka.
Childish enthusiasm, energy and interests shine through, making the programmes a joy to watch . . . but wait. While adults may enjoy watching and learning from children, a young audience may feel differently.
First, what do the programmes achieve? They investigate a topic - human activities, urban growth, agriculture and climate, trade, environmental management - which is illustrated by examples from each country. This is followed by a visual essay covering special topics relating to the geography of Sri Lanka. Geographical skills are readily identifiable, the investigations are easy to copy and the themes clearly explained. Children run the programmes, interviewing, narrating, questioning. Their concerns become ours.
The viewer gets a real sense of place. The programmes exude the heat of Sri Lanka's big cities, you can almost taste the curry on your fingers (that is how Sri Lankans eat it), and you can see why this island on the tip of a continent won the cricket World Cup: everybody plays, all the time.
You also get a feeling that children truly are interested in everything that goes on around them, not least the environmental destruction that is common to both countries. A group of Irish children study their local stretch of coast to see how sand dunes can be stabilised and repopulated by wildlife. Footpath erosion is a common problem. The field work is interesting and easy to emulate. These most certainly are real schools and real children.
There is some moving footage of elephants (not in Ireland) in an "orphanage" for endangered animals. Sri Lanka's vast elephant population has been whittled down to just a few thousand; many of those still either working or wild are threatened not by poachers or farmers but by landmines, planted by the army in the war against Tamil separatists.
Children in Sri Lanka also work hard to protect the breeding beaches of turtles. These are threatened by both fishermen and tourists, so children are seen carefully staking out small areas where hatching eggs are hidden.
The use of children as the protagonists in schools programmes is not new, but in geography their use may be most pertinent. We're often told that the film ET was so successful because it took a child's perspective. These programmes do the same and, although some may scoff at the "perfect" pupils, there can be no doubt that there is an empathy between viewer and performer. Daily tasks, individual animals and real people are used instead of statistics or graphics. When adults are wheeled out - a farmer in East Anglia, a tea planter in Sri Lanka - they are interviewed by youngsters. When there is a big problem to solve, or an explanation to give, the children do it themselves (apart from the briefing of a helicopter pilot).
Importantly, real value is attached to the way children conduct themselves. This is not just preparation for being an adult, or youngsters looking in on in awe at what the oldies are doing.
So full marks to these programmes. There's a brief but handy teacher's guide which provides helpful extra information and ideas. And a footnote: compare the importance of religion (Buddhism) in Sri Lanka with the lack of a similar spiritual dimension in the UK. It makes you think.
The teacher's guide costs Pounds 3.95; a resource pack containing teacher's notes, photocopiable activities, photocards and mapcards for each of the locations, and a board game, costs Pounds 24.95. Both from Channel 4 Schools, PO Box 100, Warwick CV34 6TZ. Tel: 01926 433333