Time and spacemen

6th September 1996 at 01:00
How do you teach the concept of chronology to children who cannot even tell the time? Bernard Adams on a novel approach for special needs and early years pupils.

The special needs pupils were just a little late. Seven were supposed to be coming to the Tower of the Winds on the Shugborough estate in Staffordshire. Millennium Man (normally Gary Marsden, the farm manager) was in his silver suit and helmet in front of his Time Machine. Liz Swinnerton, a senior guide, waited, just a touch concerned. Her radio link buzzed: they'd been held up but were just arriving.

It was the first-day trial of a new, targeted educational experience, Clockwork at Shugborough. How would the children behave and what would they get from their day out? Would the Shugborough staff discover a new money-spinning attraction? And would the props, carefully prepared by a local art college, be practical and appropriate?

The project started about a year ago when staff at Longdon Hall School near Rugeley in Staffordshire began to address the problem of educational visits for their special needs children.

Class 5 teacher Margaret Small says: "There's a difficulty in finding suitable educational visits for special needs children like ours. Very often they're just not simple enough, the level of language is too difficult and the children just aren't properly catered for."

So she and Maggie Sutton, a senior middle school colleague, approached Shugborough, the Lichfield ancestral run by the National Trust and Staffordshire County Council. Any specially adapted scheme would need considerable resources, so Sutton Coldfield College was approached and the help of Alan Schmidt, senior lecturer in graphic design, enlisted. Tasks were given to the college's B-Tech National Diploma students. Alan Schmidt says: "They had to simplify the concepts at every stage. It was quite a demanding project. "

Two students involved in the design were waiting in the Tower of the Winds, anxious, like everybody else, as the seven children, ranging in age from from 8 to 14, arrived each with an adult aide. The children all have speech, language and communication difficulties and were described by Maggie Sutton as falling within "the continuum described as 'autistic'".

Space-suited Millenium Man greets them in the marbled interior of the Tower. He explains that he is trapped in time and to return to life in the future, he has to discover three important dates and fit them into his Time Machine. As he asks the children to make some expeditions back through time themselves to get him the numbers, they gaze at him, slightly awed.

Millennium Man leads the party upstairs to a beautiful octagonal room where he is able to give them some clues to their time destination. On a large, octagonal table is a clock face with Roman and Arabic numerals on it. The children have seen it already at their school. Then Millennium Man plays a short video consisting of a series of images of Roman clothes, transport and their way of life, including a picture of a centurion.

Millenium Man realises that the children must find a centurion, and he gives them a picture of the Doric Temple where they will find him. Amid great excitement, he hands over a large piece of jigsaw and says that it will fit into a puzzle at the Temple which will give the children the number he needs.

So far the children have been paying as much attention as they can. They troop downstairs and set off in a high cart drawn by a fine horse across the green acres of Shugborough to their next destination.

Administrative assistant Ron Mellor is looking a trifle cold in his Roman mini-skirt. But the children are delighted when they find on the floor of the Temple a large number of thick, tactile jigsaw pieces. With a little help from the designers and the watching adults a hidden Roman numeral III emerges.

This is the first number Millennium Man needs to escape from his time travelling. So it's back in the cart and to the Tower where Millennium Man is handed a great many pieces of paper with Roman IIIs written on them.

By now attention is beginning to wander with a few sudden surges of restless and impatient behaviour, but the children depart happily enough for their residential school.

The post-mortem finds that the children have a had a good day out and will have gained some new understanding from the experience. But most cannot tell the time, so that the concept of time in terms of numerals such as 3 o'clock, and dates are even harder for them to grasp. But they have a good sense of their own timetable and, at several moments, they were asking when "break" was going to be.

They had studied the Romans in class and they had been to Shugborough before, so they were very well prepared for both the conceptual content and the change of location from their familiar surroundings. It was difficult to see or hear tangible evidence that they had registered the Romans as being in the past or understood the concept of the Time Machine and Millennium Man, although they were greatly impressed by the very solid flesh-and-blood character.

This was the first of three two-hour visits for the children. Later that week they followed the same Tower procedure but took some spices to the Victorian kitchen where they made biscuits and paid for them with an 1896 penny.

On their final visit they went to the main house and met one of the Lichfield ancestors, Admiral Anson; saw a naval demonstration and brought back a page of a log book dated 1743 to their friendly Millennium Man. He now had all the numbers he needed to escape back into his own time.

After the three days had been completed there were positive reactions both from Shugborough and from the school staff. Millennium Man had been a great hit - the children managing to remember him from one day to the next. One child, full of excitement, asked: "Are these the Georgians?" She had obviously made the connection between these costumed figures and the video she had just seen.

The highlight was probably the escape of Millennium Man from his Time Machine. He logged in the numbers the children had given him, went inside his machine, closed the door and disappeared.

Maggie Sutton believes that on the basis of this experience special schools must make the effort to go out and co-operate with places like Shugborough to create the sort of educational visit that will really suit their children. "If you go and ask, they can deliver something tailored for you children's needs. Otherwise you'll just have to take what's on offer," she says.

Already some other special needs schools have heard about the project and are showing interest. But Shugborough may be on to a winner, not only with this very specialised market but also with a much larger one. It was clear that, with a little modification, Clockwork at Shugborough could become an exceptionally lively and useful educational visit for primary school children.

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