Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Farms For City Children - a week of muck and magic!

As you may know, Farms for City Children is our charity for 2012.

Founded by children’s author Michael Morpurgo and his wife Clare at Nethercott Farm in Devon in 1976, Farms for City Children has since seen 75,000 children aged 9 to 11 take part in its programmes. During the last school year (2010-2011), 2,843 children stayed for 7 days each.

We interviewed their chief executive, Helen Chaloner, to find out more…

Why is the charity so important for children?

Heavy lifting at Wick Court, Gloucestershire
“It’s a rounded experience which enables them to learn through doing.  Children work together in teams and are immersed in a completely different environment for seven days - deep in the countryside, with stars in the night sky.”

“They learn the farming way of life, which is round the clock and far removed from their daily lives of TV, mobile phones and computers – they get none of that on our farms. They don’t need it, and we find that they don’t miss it. They interact with each other, sit down to meals together and support each other.”

“The children learn things linked with the National Curriculum, like maths, science, biology and history, and they also learn about themselves – recognising that they are people and citizens. By looking after animals they become responsible for another living being. Non-academic kids get the chance to shine and develop their leadership qualities.”

So what does a typical stay on the farm involve?

Lambing at Treginnis Iraf, Pembrokeshire
“Children come as a class with their teachers, and are provided with a carefully constructed list of jobs throughout their stay. They start work early, at 7:30am, and they could be in the dairy for milking and mucking out, or helping with a stock check of sheep, collecting eggs or mucking out donkeys, pigs and hens.”

“They get a cooked breakfast every day at 9am – something warm and hearty like bacon and eggs, pancakes or porridge. Then it’s off to do another job at 9:45am. They get some free time from 11:30 until the main meal of the day at 12:30pm. They eat very well - the farms have big kitchen gardens, so children always have fresh vegetables and meat. Most food is from farm to plate – which gives children a real appreciation of where food comes from.”

“Another job in the afternoon is followed by a light tea and then a final job at 6pm. It’s a busy day – closely following our learning by doing philosophy. The children actually love mud and rain and dirt and wind, and are physically worn out as they muck in together. We have lots of good role models on the farm to influence the children.”

But it’s not all hard work?

Donkey Walks at Nethercott, Devon
“Not at all. In the evening, children are treated to cocoa and cake and spend time with their teachers, taking part in talent shows, storytelling, reading in the library, or playing table football and ping pong. Once a week the children work with local artists and craftsmen, who come in and spend an afternoon teaching them skills likewillow weaving, making charcoal, carving and wire sculpture. We let the children experience using tools, making sure they do it properly and carefully.”

Tell us about your illustrious founder and the early days?

“Michael Morpurgo used to read to the children a lot, and the poet Ted Hughes was involved early on with his wife, Carol. Illustrator Quentin Blake was another who has worked with us, to help bring out the creative streak in children – you’ll see his lovely illustrations all over our website and in our marketing material.”

“Michael is still a trustee, an actively involved board member and a high-profile ambassador for the charity. We’re also incredibly lucky and honoured to have Princess Anne as our patron.”

Has the formula changed much over the years?

More Donkey Walks at Nethercott
“Not really. The model has lasted incredibly well. We experimented with different lengths of stay and group sizes early on, and found that a seven day stay, Friday to Friday, works best. We’ve moved with the times to incorporate healthy eating and   physical exercise, providing an alternative to convenience foods, obesity and sedentary TV lifestyles.”

And what plans for the future?

“We’re looking for a fourth farm in the north of England. Our existing farms have been fully booked for three years now, so there is a need for expansion. We’ve been talking to the National Trust and there are a few possibilities but nothing concrete yet. We have time to plan and wait for the right one.”

So who qualifies to come on a farm stay and how does it get organised?

“We prioritise our marketing at schools from inner cities and disadvantaged areas, but children can come from any town or city, any urban environment. Children always come with their school, so they should contact the farm they wish to visit for availability. We’re open all year round, and often winter is just as good as summer - what it lacks in sunshine it more than makes up for in terms of farm activities and events and all the animals are kept in their barns, so there is much more opportunity for interaction.”

If you’d like to make a donation to Farms for City Children, visit www.justgiving.com/helpfulholidays at any time or you can also make a contribution when you book a holiday through Helpful Holidays.