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Children on Farms - The Apricot Centre approach

posted 2 Jul 2014, 15:02 by Mark O'Connell   [ updated 1 Aug 2014, 00:47 by Marina - Mark O'Connell ]

The Concept

When I first started market gardening at Dartington Hall we kept chickens on the 8 acre site. Every day the local pre-school group would wend their way after lunch to the garden for their walk, and brought their left over lunch to feed the chickens. After some months, the chickens saw the children snaking across the field and knew they were in for a treat, they would start flapping and squawking, the children also knew they were in for a treat and also got excited! One rainy afternoon, the chickens were penned in the field tidying up after a crop for us, enclosed with a flimsy electric fence – turned-off of course. As the children approached the chickens flapped, the children leaned on the fence and suddenly the chickens got out into the field, the children got in to the chicken pen and muddy mayhem happened. It was hilarious and one of the highlights of my 10 year career at Dartington Hall. These observations made me realise that children love chickens and chickens love children, and that this excitement around collecting eggs and feeding animals also carried through to digging up potatoes, picking a strawberry, sowing a seed and more.

Over the years we have worked with more than 20 schools introducing outdoor classrooms, inviting them to our small farm, for food growing and eating experience,  including youngsters from some of the most deprived areas of Essex.  We have observed that if children are given the opportunity to make connections to nature and healthy food on; a farm, a school garden or allotment then in the long term this will lead to them having; a healthier diet, a broader palette, a greater sense of wellbeing, and it forms the basis for respect for place and nature. Just as children "attach" to a parent, we believe that children "attach" to nature (or chickens) given the opportunity, which in the long term could contribute towards them living a more sustainable lifestyle and having a greater sense of wellbeing. We have no proof for this other than experience and observation of 14 years of work with children in these settings.

The Practice

We invite school groups, home education groups, pre-school groups, specialist schools for autism,  and other groups to the Apricot centre. The format is normally a tour of our small farm with age/ ability appropriate explanations of what they are seeing and looking at. We make this as sensory as possible with ‘tastings’, smelling, touching, looking and hearing what the site has to offer at any particular time of the year. We follow the children’s feedback as much as possible so the visit might change depending upon the interest of the children.

Once the tour is over we have an activity that is tailored to the group and what they want to learn. So far we have covered areas such as;

  • ·       Setting up a market stall and selling produce to each other
  • ·       Science - plant lifecycles, pollination, composting,
  • ·       Making apple juice, picking and pressing and drinking the fresh juice.
  • ·       English focus - drawing and labelling the apple pressing machine and descriptions of the process.
  • ·       Social history of the site and who came before us on the farm
  • ·       Art - using the garden as the creative source and resources for art projects
  • ·       Cookery - one of our most favourite activities, picking cooking and eating lunch.
  • ·       Ecotherapy - activities in nature - such as hugging a tree, or just sitting quietly for 10 minutes by a tree. 
  • ·       Making dens
  • ·       Wildlife habitats - making bug hotels, and exploring the wildlife on site
  • ·       Making clay ovens
  • ·       Exploring the concept of local food
  • ·       Making a labyrinth
  • ·       Using a compost toilet  
  • ·       Mud pie corner - playing with mud for those that have not so far in their lives !
  • ·       Making jam or elderflower cordial

Our aim is that the children have fun, and have experiences they might not have at school or at home, that can be used by the teachers or parents as an aid to build on learning in the future. We use mostly kinesetic and tactile learning methods on site.

We carry our risk and benefit analysis for all of the tasks, and we are fully insured. We use HLS funding to pay for the visits.

Predominantly we work on site at the Apricot centre but we have in the past worked in schools making outdoor classrooms and creative outdoor learning experiences. We are currently piloting local food mapping with Ardleigh primary school in collaboration with Transition Network and CPRE using some of these techniques, and mostly working in the school itself.

Mark O'Connell is a child psychotherapist and it is our observation that these activities have a therapeutic value for children who have experienced trauma. We are very slowly exploring how we can offer these activities to these groups of parents, carers and children.

Expanding this work

Currently we are based in Manningtree Essex on a 4 acre site where we grow organic fruit, and 500 square meters of glass house, we have a centre and a kitchen where we process the food to eat and preserve. We have recently been offered a larger site 36 acres for a demonstration Biodynamic farm in Totnes Devon where we could expand this experience to include outdoor vegetables, fruit, chickens and cows. The Biodynamic land trust would facilitate a community buy out of the farm and we are looking for funding to build a new training centre, and kitchens so that we can offer this experience to more children in the West country. 

Establishing a Biodynamic Farm at Week, Dartington - Community Land Shares - The Apricot Centre is involved in a pioneering project with in partnership with The Biodynamic Land Trust (BDLT) with view to establishing a 36 acre Biodynamic farm on land at Week in Dartington Devon. With our now more than 25 years experience in working with Biodynamic, Organic, agroforestry and Permacultural methods of food growing, Week Farm would be a unique integration of these compatible approaches. We are fully confident in our ability working with the land and community to design and develop a vibrant farm, and are comfortable with communicating these concepts and ideas to a broad range of people. The project would also involve a continuation of our creative work with children and schools in participation with nature, and will be closely linked with our wellbeing work with children and families.