If you have, teach or happen to know any primary aged children, then you’ll probably agree that taking a group of five, six and seven year olds on a residential for three days is a rather ambitious, or completely ludicrous, idea. I have been away with eleven year olds before and witnessed the tears at bedtime, the meltdowns over losing an orienteering challenge and the devastation of not being on the top bunk. And these are kids who can tie their own shoes.
So you can imagine my reservations when I got asked to accompany year 1 and 2 on a three day farm trip to Somerset.
How will they cope? How will we cope? Won’t they just cry for their mums? Half of them will wet the bed. Dear God, nobody will sleep for THREE DAYS.
…These were just some of the concerns I found myself silently fretting about, whilst nodding politely and accepting with enthusiasm. “I’d love to!”
Luckily, my colleagues - my incredible, optimistic, spirited colleagues – had more faith, and it was a good job too because it was - hands down - the most amazing school trip I’ve ever been part of.
We bundled them onto the coach, these tiny dots of children, who waved goodbye to their mums and dads with their teddies tucked safely under their arms, and enough clean pants and socks to last them for several weeks. They were excited, but slightly bewildered by the whole thing, and couldn’t really get their heads around the fact that we would no longer be in London.
For these privileged, city kids from over on the Continent, spending time in rural England was a bit of an alien concept. They go on holiday several times a year, but to places like LA and the south of France, Mauritius and Reunion Island. I don’t think many of these trips involve wellies and waterproofs. Some parents admitted that they were letting their kids go without much conviction, and they all wondered how they’d cope away from home. But in just three days we watched 28 children, many of whom are wrapped - metaphorically and literally - in cotton wool (well, cashmere) transform into confident, intrepid explorers. I would never have believed it, had I not seen it for myself.
We had all the weather – the UK was really at its finest that week – from glorious sunshine and clear blue skies, to biting winds, rain, hail and, at one point, snow. We wrapped up and stripped off, wellies went on, then off, then on again (because let’s face it, you can always have more fun in wellies) and the kids got on with it stoically. They got on with it, because they were surrounded by nature’s wonder and beauty - and they couldn’t get enough of it.
They fed chickens with tentatively outstretched hands and trembled in delight as they pecked it straight from their palms and flapped manically around their feet. They befriended a trip of giddy goats, tickling them at first with one cautious finger on the top of their heads, and then chasing after them for cuddles once their confidence around the animals grew. They poured buckets of food into the troughs of excitable little piglets and squealed in union with them as they watched a full on piggy pile up.
“He just stood on his head!”
“That one fell over!”
“THEY’RE EATING ALL THE FOOD!”
They breathed air – fresh, electrifying air – deep into their lungs and got drunk on it as they ran around outside until dusk. On the first night, they sat around a campfire, singing songs and toasting marshmallows as the sun went down, before trundling off to bed with smokey hair and sticky fingers.
There was nobody following them around at every minute, so they picked up some important life skills too. They had to put their own covers and pillow cases on their bedding (that was interesting), and collect their own plates and cutlery in the canteen. They had to sort their rubbish and food waste into the correct recycling bin and help sweep the floor after meal times. They made their own sandwiches and stone baked pizzas, and cleaned their teeth with fresh sage plucked right off the tree.
In the garden, they picked herbs and vegetables for their evening meal and were allowed to taste everything straight from the ground. Some were hesitant at first (“That’s dirty…they don’t look like that in Waitrose…”) but before long, they were tasting everything – edible flowers, chives, sorrel, kale, rainbow chard, mizuna – and making ‘mixtures’ for the teachers with hot, peppery leaves hidden in the middle. We watched with our mouths agape, as one little boy in particular, who never eats anything at lunch time, meandered around in his element, devouring handfuls of salad as though it was chocolate.
Ah but what about bedtime? I hear you ask. Was it not an absolute disaster? At bed time, they showered and put their pyjamas on one after the other, without a fuss, all enjoying the chance to get warm and cosy at the end of a busy day. They climbed into bed and struggled to keep their eyes open for long enough to even think about any kind of meltdown. We peeked in on them at 9:30, as they gently snored away, and wondered if this might be the calm before the storm, but it wasn’t. There was no storm. The euphoria of all that fresh air and those sprawling hills wore them out until the morning, allowing us to sleep like babies too (well, some of us...).
The real magic came late in the afternoon on the second day. Our leader took us out into the woods for ‘survival in the wild’. The children utilised their problem solving skills by working in tribes to make dens, sourcing materials from the forest and fashioning a teepee big enough for 10 people out of massive sticks. As a reward for all their hard work, the kids were given some free play in the forest and it was here that we saw them blossom even further before our very eyes.
They began peeling off their layers, running like wild things through the woods, splashing in muddy puddles and rolling down hills. They unzipped their coats, letting them flap wildly behind them as they soared higher and higher on the rope swing. We watched as these tiny little things dragged giant sticks around and picked themselves up, dusting off their palms, when they fell down in the dirt. Their resilience was multiplying by the minute. Instead of saying, ‘Be careful..’ or ‘Put that down!’, we found ourselves encouraging them to go bigger, jump higher, run faster, shout louder. Even the teachers were allowed to be the best versions of themselves.
At the end of our final day, we were all a little sad to be piling on the bus and leaving the fresh country air behind us for smoggy old London. We hardly recognised these kids, or ourselves, after this wild and wonderful three days together. We were leaving with our children feeling taller, stronger, braver, wiser, more curious, more independent and beautifully sunkissed. They had grown in mind and spirit and were the happiest we’d ever seen them.
And you’ll never guess what? There wasn’t a SATs paper, or phonics flash card, or assessment grid in sight.