The great outdoors is the best classroom, says Bury St Edmunds headteacher Andrew Hammond
Forty years ago I joined the Cub Scouts. I graduated to a Scout, then Venture Scout, then worked as a Cub Scout leader for many years. I can still recite the Cub Scout law we were taught all those years ago: a Cub Scout always does his best, thinks of others before himself and does a good turn every day. Not a bad maxim for any of us.
The Scout movement is known for embracing the great outdoors, and over the years I have always been keen to establish outdoor adventure and leadership programmes in schools, because I know, first hand, of the benefits such activities can bring to children’s well-being and motivation. In my current school we recently rolled out a new programme of Forest Schools, led by Explore Outdoor, a company I can highly recommend. (My thanks to a neighbouring school who have allowed us to rent their excellent forest schools area every Tuesday!).
It has been truly epic watching the children (and staff) flourish whilst climbing trees, cooking marshmallows over the fire and building dens. There is something so special about being outside – in ‘actual reality’.
I am certain that the environment outside a child’s head has a very significant impact on what goes on inside it and the natural environment has the most positive impact of all. Too often, we adults give children the impression that their bodies are receptacles to get their heads from one meeting to the next. No teacher sets out to teach children only from the neck upwards, but it is a poor indictment of today’s education system that we have to use phrases like ‘teaching the whole child’ or ‘holistic learning experiences’. As if there is any other form of effective teaching!
Watching the children exploring during a forest schools afternoon is heartening, not only because they are developing team work, self-esteem and motivation, but also because they are free, at last, to re-imagine the world in a different way. And re-imagining the world is what childhood is about.
Last week, down at forest schools, a group of little boys emerged out of the undergrowth and sprinted towards me like a mob of meerkats. They could barely get their news out, they were so excited.
‘Mr Hammond, Mr Hammond, you’ll never guess what we’ve found.’
‘What?’ I asked eagerly.
‘You’ll have to come and see,’ they said and scurried off back to where they came from. I ran as quickly as I could in my suit and inappropriate shoes, trying to keep up with them.
Eventually we arrived at a little den they had made for themselves. And there, in the centre of the hollow, on a bed of leaves, was the subject of their fascination. It was… a pebble.
‘Do you know what that is?’ one of the meerkats asked.
‘Erm… no. Do tell me.’
They looked at each other and then whispered at me, with wide eyes. ‘It’s a dinosaur egg...’
I remember when my eldest daughter was about six. We were walking along a canal path. She was on my shoulders and her miniature Kicker boots were tapping merrily on my chest. I remember she suddenly stopped moving and froze rigid.
‘Daddy!’ she said, ‘Dinosaur bones, dinosaur bones! Look!’
I set her down on the floor (a safe distance from the canal, you understand) and started scrabbling around on the mud beside the path, trying to find what I assumed had been a rabbit or pigeon carcass that some fox had discarded. I was worried about how I was going to explain to Nell what it really was. But I just couldn’t see any bones at all. I scanned the whole area, while Nell just stayed quiet, giggling.
Eventually, she said, ‘Not down there, silly. Up there!’
She was pointing to the sky. Well, by now I thought she had really lost it. Dinosaur bones in the sky? My literal, logical, adult brain told me that there couldn’t possibly be dinosaur bones in the sky. But I felt I should play the game and look up anyway.
And there it was. As clear as anything. It was the skeleton of the diplodocus that once greeted visitors to the Natural History Museum. An elongated cloud had been stretched and bent by the wind and then chopped up by cross winds. It was an almost exact replica of a diplodocus skeleton. Of course it was.
Why had I not seen it myself?
I’ve never seen one again since, but I keep looking. One never knows what you will find in the great outdoors, if you look hard enough.
-- Andrew Hammomd is headteacher at Guildhall Feoffment Primary School in Bury St Edmunds