When school children visit the Yorkshire Arboretum their teachers have already chosen the activity which they feel will be most useful for them. However I often wonder if the children would agree, as many of their memories of the day seem to be quite incidental to the main focus.
From the moment they walk up the drive, brimming with enthusiasm, chanting “we’re going frog dipping”, to the moment they leave: tired, footsore but smiley, their day is filled with the outdoors.
Some children who visit inform me, as we walk alongside the lake to a shelter building activity, that they’ve never seen a swan before. Others, from more rural or involved families, come armed with binoculars and minibeast books, confident in the knowledge that they can contribute more to this day than they can at school.
The teachers actually like the fact that their mobiles won’t work here so that they can’t be disturbed whilst making a potion with the forest fairy. Others like the way in which we recall a life before SatNav (or even maps) during the orienteering and story stick activity where children collect plants on their stick and then retrace their steps as the Aboriginals may have done many years ago. Often the teachers uphold the same values as us, as in their spare time they run a gardening club or forest schools. Although we are not a forest school many of the activities connect with the forest schools’ enthusiasm for inspiration, confidence-building and hands-on learning in the outdoors.
Children begin to make connections whilst using an outdoor provider. They write letters to us telling us that they have counted all of the worms in their garden or that they are bringing their grandparents to show them where they have been. They have competitions with friends whilst pond dipping, saying “I caught a tadpole but Charlene nicked it!” and between groups, saying, ”We were really lucky as Terry helped us and he’s well clever”. Their light bulb moments are clear when they connect the water hog louse in their net with the grey woodlouse found on their patio.
Even at lunchtime, their incidental knowledge of the environment continues to develop as they explore the woodland playground. As it is built and designed in-house from our trees we were able to create long logs for balancing fun, wide logs to jump to and a frame to lean a bamboo shelter against. For some children throwing an apple core into the spidery compost heap may be a highlight, yet for others it may be a trip to the bird observatory to watch the blue tits they left nuts for earlier.
Most children’s thoughts on the day are positive, although the composting toilets are sometimes a challenge to our 21st century lifestyle; ”It would be better with a flush and a tap”. Brimming with new words like sustainability, exoskeleton and ruddy darter on their lips, they trudge down the path to the coach with a smile and a wave.
Kathryn Hardaker, Yorkshire Arboretum