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Cultivating a culture of care

The work of On the hill is underpinned by the following statement:

''To engage people in meaningful activity in service to the land, the self, community, and the future''.

Through experientially engaging in the daily running of the farm, we are cultivating within children an understanding of their interdependence with, and love for, the living world. We cultivate a culture of care within the microcosm that is the garden, kitchen, farm, and all that the children interact with. We do this in the hope that as they grow into teenagers and adults this might translate into a more responsible global consciousness.

When exploring what we mean by experiential learning it is important to ask: when does something really become knowledge? Or, when do we truly “know” something? We live in a society where we have access to infinite information, where educational attainment is often measured by how well we can regurgitate information and not necessarily by how we can apply it. This type of cognitive learning is much more useful to our growth and development when balanced with an experiential approach.

For example, all children are taught phenomena such as the carbon cycle, are successfully tested on it and yet do they really understand it?

Limited insight into this can be gained from books, lectures, and a computer screen. For some this may suffice, for others it will seem very abstract. I have often asked children and adults, ''where does that tree come from?'' and invariably the answer is incorrect. In our On The Hill Experiential Science Program we explore the carbon cycle through experiments in the garden and woodland, and through making charcoal. The latter gives a wonderful turbo-charged insight into the fossilization process, producing gas, tar, and pure carbon from wood harvested through our coppice rotation. This fascinating and dramatic large-scale science experiment exposes some fundamental basics of organic chemistry, and helps young people really understand the science behind the climate crisis. In a follow-on activity using some of the freshly made charcoal as fuel, students can then be taught how to forge a simple tool, thus discovering the origins of the iron age.

This type of hands-on activity allows children to discover the world through a creative engagement with their surroundings. The natural and farmed environment becomes a laboratory in which students are carrying out genuine experiments where the outcome is not known at the beginning and there is no such thing as a “wrong” result. Learning in this way offers opportunities for authentic discovery. As you can imagine, the follow-up work from this example embraces chemistry, biology, physics, history, geography, design and technology, PSHE, and craft. All based on a series of practical workshops.

Children have visited On The Hill from city and rural schools. Many of whom have had very little knowledge of where their food comes from. Many when learning to bake bread have not known what it is actually made from, and we have realized that starting with a sack of flour misses a whole part of the process. We now grow wheat, and bread baking begins with a visit to the wheat field, followed by hand milling and sieving grain to make the flour.

From seed to table, or from source to usable product offers a real three-dimensional educational experience. Woodwork starts in the woods, pottery by digging clay, textiles with the sheep, and cooking in the garden.

Much that is important in child development is beyond their measurable academic attainment; the ability to function as a member of the community, teamwork, leadership, and communication skills. Group tasks in the outdoor educational landscape offer opportunities for children and young people to develop in these ways, where the role of the activity leader is to guide and facilitate their journey rather than teaching them “facts”.

The world is changing fast, we are at the beginning of a sixth mass extinction. The climate emergency is real. Education must change in order to support young people to build both inner- and outer-resilience. Inner means greater self-confidence, imbuing a greater sense being in service to the wellbeing of others and our earth. Outer resilience requires the development of life skills and a deeper sense of knowing than simply accumulating facts can offer.

Young people are desperate to experience the world and their relationship to it in ways other than through a screen or a classroom. We must offer rites of passage experiences where teenagers are able to do dangerous things safely, where they can actually experience the visceral reality of the origins of their meat and veg. What would it look like if we really were offering children and young people real elemental connectivity with earth, air, fire, and water?

I believe that if we do, we can prepare the next generation to meet the inevitable challenges that are coming towards them whilst supporting them to do this joyously, actively hoping for a better future.

Early next year we a running a new programme for 12-16 year olds, called Hill Tribe. Hill Tribe is an open programme for individual young people. For six days, away from the pressures and stresses of everyday life we will camp up on the hill around a fire, living with the elements. Find out more on our programmes page.

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