It is at the heart of school life, says Fred de Falbe
What do we want most of all for our children? The fundamental aim that they should be healthy, happy and enjoy coming to school seems reasonable enough, but it is something of an oversimplification, given the multiple foils of pressure we see today.
Developing this, and with it a child’s character, is a multifaceted and complex process. Our recent Chinese guests gave us vivid insight into their ‘world of school’, where there are practically no extra-curricular activities and their evenings are packed with homework or extra lessons.
Their parents readily admit it is only anxiety about competitiveness that drives this, however counter-productive they know it to be. Happiness can ‘go hang’!
For three weeks of the holidays we had a summer school running, which included children from as far as China and as near as Sheringham. It was a busy and fun-packed timetable with a wide range of opportunities to participate, socialise and try new things.
Everyone enjoyed it and, although there were moments of uncertainty and tension – as there always are when children are nudged out of their comfort zones, it was declared a success by all and sundry. How and why?
If the conditions are created where children feel comfortable and included, so that they can enjoy the atmosphere and attention to detail, this is a start. The Chinese children enjoyed the food very much but also loved the chance to share their fabulous cooking of dumplings and noodles with us.
Whether sushi-making or brought-from-home birthday cakes, there is excitement to be had from the ordinary. The flapjacks, cordial and fruit-on-tap appealed to some of our more local constituents too.
The first and central aim of Beeston is to create this atmosphere where children who come enjoy it appreciate it and therefore contribute to it. This can happen in small but important ways (food and inclusion) as much as in large structural ones, like a varied curriculum and timetable.
A commitment to visit and engage with the outside world is important too, whether by doing surveys of tree bark at Felbrigg or searching out belemnites on the nearby sea shore, applying, developing and practising classroom skills. Further afield, we admired and wondered at the Bridge of Sighs in Cambridge and the amazing, newly reopened Museum of Zoology (the exhibits of dodo, white rabbit and caterpillar linking beautifully with our study of Alice in Wonderland).
We added knowledge and experience, but I would suggest it is the intervening discussion which is what really makes these experiences, whether in the back of the minibus or around the lunch table three days later.
Here’s the thing; this all happens because children (and adults) want it to happen - if not initially: cajoling, enthusiasm and optimism being vital ingredients. It is, though, happening mostly because these are all activities which support the building of relationships.
If you asked our summer school students what was the best bit, they would have all said ‘making friends’, and this friend-making process is driven best by providing plenty of contexts where there can be chat, discussion and exploration.
The developmental psychologist Bruce Hood (University of Bristol) says, in his book The Self Illusion: “We have this deep-seated drive to interact with each other that helps us discover who we are” and this is what lies at the heart of school life. He maintains that for this to happen successfully ,children need to share information about themselves and, if this is the case, they need to know about themselves.
As I began with, the whole development of children is the fundamental aim of any school and this requires a balance of the personal and the social as they seek to discover about themselves as well as the world around them. In my view this needs informal and unstructured opportunities to chat, interact and test out elements of character, as much as structured ones, which was why our guests had such a revolutionary time learning to kayak, make sushi, perform a play and buy ice creams, all within the context of school.
As the new school year gets underway we witness our children (and other people’s) displaying a mix of dread, excitement and nerves.
For some it is an easy process, for some less so, but if the activity is varied and the atmosphere inclusive, then the chances of happiness achieved are infinitely higher.
We cannot expect happiness to be a constant or permanent state of being, but with that same cajoling optimism I mentioned before, we are likely to be closer to it. The ‘social’ at school, with its many opportunities to interact, try things, make mistakes and learn from them is what lies at the heart of it being an enjoyable experience. Our Chinese friends can’t wait to come back!
ABOVE:Beeston Hall School, West Runton