Learn­ing hap­pi­ness

It is at the heart of school life, says Fred de Falbe

EDP Norfolk - - EDUCATION - Fred de Falbe, Bee­ston Hall School bee­ston­hall.co.uk

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

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