Turning over a new leaf

5th November 2010 at 00:00
The great outdoors is an unknown world for many inner-city children. But as Meabh Ritchie reports, a project on the outskirts of London shows them that the wonders of nature can be enjoyed right on their doorstep.

They might be cold and dripping wet, with soaking hair plastered to their faces, but Jessie-May and Sumaiya are not going to let the rain get in the way of a good time. Along with their classmates, they have just been on a mini-beast hunt in a meadow and then had a talk from experts about hunting game animals.

The guns were "quite scary", says Jessie-May, who nonetheless seems delighted after seeing some in "real life". "We saw some dead birds as well," says Sumaiya, "like a pigeon whose head was attached to a piece of string. It was gross!"

The pair are Year 5 pupils at St Michael at Bowes Church of England Junior School, in Enfield, north London, and along with 1,300 other primary pupils they are taking part in an event that aims to highlight the benefits of learning outdoors.

Countryside Live was set up to give inner-city children the chance to have the sort of rural experience that many of them would never otherwise get. Organised by the Countryside Foundation for Education, a charity that works in schools to increase appreciation of the countryside, the event is hosted by Lee Valley Park, which stretches 26 miles from the Thames in east London to Ware in Hertfordshire.

The event has the feel of a country fair, with a range of displays representing everything the countryside has to offer. There are birds of prey flying overhead, willow weavers and potato farmers. A kennel of basset hounds eagerly laps up the attention from the children.

"We are trying to prepare children so that they're not thinking the only option for a weekend is sitting in front of a computer," says Karen Wheeler, the park's youth and schools manager. "We want them to realise there is a whole outdoor space that they can go and visit for free."

Many inner-city pupils are not even aware that parks such as Lee Valley exist, says Kiran Dhillan, Year 5 teacher at St Michael at Bowes, even though some live just a short bus ride away. And some pupils do not have a strong cultural tradition of going on trips to the country.

"A lot of our pupils come from abroad - mainly Turkey or Cyprus in my class - so today is about giving them a chance to experience this," she says. "They come from a background where it would be more about staying at home with the family. It is family orientated, but they wouldn't really go on trips like this."

It is not just children whose parents come from other countries that are not using the natural environment, however. A survey of 2,000 UK children by Eden, a documentary TV channel, found they are becoming increasingly out of touch with the natural world (see panel, overleaf). Almost three- quarters of eight to 12-year-olds (73 per cent) spent more time watching TV than playing outside during the week and 36 per cent of children play outside once a week or less.

Being in the natural environment and "playing" has proven benefits for children, helping them to learn crucial skills and ways of understanding the world, according to a 2008 Ofsted report. Learning Outside the Classroom found that playing outside had a significant positive impact on children's personal, social and emotional skills, as well as raising overall standards.

"Play plants the seeds of lifelong learning and offers the foundation for imaginative and inventive minds in a strong social and inclusive environment," says Dr Colin MacAdam, chief executive of playground equipment manufacturer Playforce. "Children can learn the importance of friendship and co-operation, while taking risks and overcoming challenges and obstacles."

At St Michael, Ms Dhillan tries to build outside play and activities into her lessons whenever she can. "It brings them different experiences and different ways to learn," she says. Today's outing will feed into literacy work back at school, when pupils will write an account of the day. But having that first-hand experience fires their imagination in a way that classroom learning cannot. "It really excites them and brings the `wow' factor to learning," says Ms Dhillan. "The kids need that push to make it more meaningful to them. They learn in a different style."

For Victoria, 11, the sheep show is the firm favourite. It has a showcase of seven varieties of sheep and the farmer has somehow trained them to dance along to their own theme tunes. One crosses and uncrosses its legs to a Highland Fling, while another kicks its front legs in time to the can-can and a sheep with long curly hair nods its head to Bob Marley.

Even aside from the pupils, the teachers are clapping and whooping in surprise.

"This is the only time I've seen a sheep," says Victoria. "They feel soft. The host of the show sheared one in front of us."

Victoria is a pupil at Meadowgate Primary in Lewisham, south London, which caters for children with special educational needs. Keith Chambers, assistant headteacher, accompanied his Year 6 class to Lee Valley and says that experiencing the outside world is vital for his pupils' understanding.

"Most of our children who came along have autism," he says. "They need concrete, physical things to be able to talk about them.

"They have problems with communication and a lot of things in the curriculum are not necessarily things they have experienced. The language we use doesn't make sense unless they experience it. If you watch something or do something, that brings it to life."

Outside education is often considered an add-on, or something to supplement real learning, but Mr Chambers feels it should play a central role in schools. "I think it is fundamental, because that's what we are teaching children about - the outside world, and engaging with that is essential," he says.

There are health and safety risks to bringing children into the outside world. Schools have to do comprehensive risk assessments before any field trips, with the result that some teachers are increasingly reluctant to organise these outings.

But failure to play outside and experience the countryside is to the detriment of the children themselves, says Ms Wheeler. "If we don't show children from a young age how to risk assess actively, the danger is that we will end up with adults who are scared to use their open spaces, or who are just not adequately prepared to use them," she says.

Outside activities should be about persuading children to take risks while ensuring their safety, says Mr Chambers: "You want to push them a bit, maybe wear them out, but you don't want them to cut themselves."

His class has been learning about rivers, studying their local river as a case study, and their visit to Lee Valley includes a trip in a rowing boat. Manoeuvring the rowing boat themselves and working out how to make it turn also shows them physical forces in action. "They make a fuss and have a moan about it, of course, but they get on with it and then love it," says Mr Chambers. As well as putting their theory into practice, they also take pictures of the wildlife and some low-flying birds.

The organisers behind Countryside Live and the Lee Valley Park's various educational programmes have a long-term goal underlying today's event. If they can inspire a love of the countryside in a generation of school children, they hope this will lead to an interest in the conservation of the area and of the countryside in general.

"The future's going to be challenging," says Ms Wheeler. "They're going to be asked to make choices to protect the environment in the future and it's very difficult to ask people to do that if they don't understand it."

She believes that the more children experience the natural world and feel an affinity with their local area, the brighter the future of natural reserves. Ms Wheeler makes no attempt to hide her intentions. "If as a child you have seen invertebrates and got excited about how beautiful they are, and then gone on to learn a little bit more about the challenges of managing those areas, then when services like Lee Valley Park ask for support to preserve it, people are much more likely to be onside," she says.

While children are the focus of today's event, the role of parents is also crucial, says Gary Richardson, chief executive of the Countryside Foundation for Education.

"It's threefold," he says. "We have to connect with children, parents and teachers. They need to be confident about visiting the countryside."

Many children need that extra push towards the great outdoors, but the hope is that once they have a taste of what is on offer, they will be keen to take it even further. Even when, like today, it is pouring with rain. "The pupils are still out there," says Mr Richardson, from the relative safety of the foundation's tent. "They're watching the displays and getting involved, even in the rain. And that alone says a lot."

Safe as houses

- 73 per cent of eight to 12-year-olds spend more time watching TV than playing outside

- 63 per cent play video games every day

- 40 per cent have never camped outside in a tent

- 40 per cent of children have climbed a tree fewer than five times in their lives

- 20 per cent have never climbed a tree

- 36 per cent play outside once a week or less

- 28 per cent have not been on a country walk with their families in the last year

- 21 per cent have never visited a farm

Source: survey of 2,000 children aged eight to 12 years, carried out by Onepoll in August 2010 on behalf of TV channel Eden.

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