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Bury St Edmunds headteacher Andrew Hammond explains why it's important to give children a sense of place

By Andrew Hammond

When you take your dog for a walk through the woods, the beloved animal will busily scamper about, sniffing everything in sight and playfully wait for you to throw a stick. The fact that you are in a forest will, I’m sure, excite the dog and you will see its tail wagging happily.

But for all the dog’s excitement about being on a walk with you, it is unlikely that his or her response to the physical environment around them will be as deep and as complex as your own. When we go for walks we respond in a thousand different ways, emotionally, spiritually, physically, cerebrally, creatively, and so on.

Reacting in response to the environment around us is one the facets of being human. We have a sense of place which, I think at least, other species do not have. The physical environment outside our head has a massive impact on what goes on inside it.

Woods are great places for children to explore
Woods are great places for children to explore

If you were to take your dog into the garden at night time, I suspect he would, again, wag his tail and wait eagerly for you to hurl a stick for him to fetch, or he would disappear into the bushes in search of something edible. Or perhaps he would do what many dogs do at night time in the middle of your lawn. If you took your young son or daughter into the garden at night time, I can imagine that their first response would be to look up, straight at the moon, and wonder, How far away is it? How big is it? Is it made of cheese? Can we go there? How does it manage to stay in the sky and not fall down onto our house? Schools need to pay attention to the environment they are creating for their children and never miss an opportunity to encourage awe and wonder in learning. Childhood does not have to be framed in magnolia paint and Tarmac. Security is vitally important, but so too is curiosity and a sense of freedom.

In the race to ensure schools are safe places to be, we may be in danger of inadvertently creating school campuses that resemble penal institutions, so tight is the security to prevent any unwanted visitors from entering. But could the edges and angles be softened? Why all this regularity? Could different materials, just as robust, be used instead of metal railings and brick walls?

This is why school trips are so important. A change of scenery, beyond the four walls of a classroom, enables the children to practise being human – that is to say engaging in the art of sensory perception, connecting with the sights and sounds of the changing environment and interpreting this information to establish a tangible sense of place.

Wordsworth defined poetry as ‘emotions recalled in tranquility’. To reflect on the range of emotions we experienced in a new place, when we return to our work desk is to recognise what it means to be a person, alive and switched on.

We don’t all have to write poetry every day, as much as I would like to, but it is worth pausing to connect with the environment and reflecting at the end of the day on how we felt, why we felt it, and how we have in some way connected with the places we have visited in our busy schedules.

If children are encouraged to develop a sense of place from an early age, they will be able to do a better job of looking after this precious planet better than we, their parents and grandparents, have.

Which reminds me. It’s time for my daily walk.

-- Andrew Hammond is headteacher at Guildhall Feoffment Primary School in Bury St Edmunds. Follow him on Twitter: @Andrew J Hammond

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