Send the children to the woods

Every year in May, for nearly a century, a message of peace has been sent to the children of the World by the members of Urdd Gobaith Cymru (The League of the Hope of Wales, aka Welsh League of Youth), the Welsh-speaking youth organisation founded in 1922 by Sir Ifan ab Owen Edwards.

This year’s message focussed on the need to stop the clock, and to build a new world (you might need to change the CC settings on the YouTube clip to get the English subtitles):

If you aren’t familiar with the Urdd, here’s a brief introduction (4’13”):

The Urdd is an amazing organization; I didn’t learn Welsh until I was in my 20s, so it wasn’t a part of my life. I wish now that it had been; as I’ve found my place in the Welsh-speaking community, I can see the benefits it had for all those who went through the Welsh-medium system in terms of the talents and self-confidence it developed, as well as the breadth of cultural knowledge and consciousness. The English-medium education system in Wales has nothing comparable, though there is some crossover; in England, there isn’t even that.

The Urdd has its annual Urdd Eisteddfod; as with the annual International Eisteddfod held at Llangollen, there is no connection with the Gorsedd of Bards established by Iolo Morganwg – that’s a feature of the National Eisteddfod of Wales alone. Even though there’s  no Druidic connection, the Urdd plays an incredibly important role in the education and personal development of its young participants – and, as its name implies, in the future development, and even existence, of Wales and Welsh-language culture.

As it happens, I’m thinking very much about education, and the importance it has for culture, and the future of our communities.

This is because of a fascinating article I read about outdoor education in Scotland. It seems that the benefits of outdoor learning have been recognised for quite some time by the Scottish education system, but it is now taking on a new importance as a potential method for re-opening the schools safely in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It’s also because this builds on my musings in my last post, about how we as Druids can shape the society that needs to be built if we are to weather the coming storms of climate change, resource depletion, and the collapse of the globalised economy – all of which are now inevitable. Many of us, as modern-day Druids, aren’t in a position to publicly reveal our beliefs. Between us, we hold a very broad range of beliefs; although we all revere nature, there is very little in the way of a structured, shared belief system, making it difficult to organise.

Many people thus prefer to express their Druidry in the world through their actions in their everyday life, rather than expressly as Druids. The education of the young is a field ripe for Druid input: as parents (for those who are!), as members of the community, as taxpayers, as school governors or members of parents’ association, as voters; as citizens: we all have a stake, and and voice, in schooling.

The articles discuss the benefits of teaching outdoors in terms of childrens’ mental and physical health, their curiosity and independence, and many other ways: and that’s just in terms of fairly unstructured play. This is supported by the reports of people like George Monbiot who, as a volunteer as long ago as 2013, helped take urban children from England to visit the countryside in Wales. He has also used the lockdown to educate his own children, and others, about the natural world in what sounds like a very necessary way. As he says:

Imagine mentioning William Shakespeare to a university graduate and discovering they had never heard of him. You would be incredulous. But it’s common and acceptable not to know what an arthropod is, or a vertebrate, or to be unable to explain the difference between an insect and spider. No one is embarrassed when a “well-educated” person cannot provide even a rough explanation of the greenhouse effect, the carbon cycle or the water cycle, or of how soils form.

All this is knowledge as basic as the intelligence that Shakespeare was a playwright. Yet ignorance of such earthy matters sometimes seems to be worn as a badge of sophistication.

There is something wrong with our education system. It needs to educate our children in culture, and the arts, and performance as deeply as the Urdd Gobaith Cymru in Wales. It needs to provide every child with the experience, just as deep, of being in the natural world. Imagine how it would change our society if all children spent time in the forest, being taught the science of how we now understand that the trees are conscious, and form communities!

Why doesn’t that happen now, and how can we make it happen?

The education most of us received at school traces its history back to the Prussian education system of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. If your memory of schools is of a class of children sitting in rows of desks, well, that’s a method traceable directly back to Frederick the Great’s wish to prepare children to be citizens who were dutiful, sober, and disciplined: not really a Druidic outcome!

These days, things are even worse. Standardised testing certainly removes the problem of grading being subjective, and also makes grading easier – but it also removes a lot of the challenge for the students. I have personally encountered an entire cohort of first-year university students who were incapable of dealing with case studies, because they had never before been given questions that didn’t have a choice of answers at the end. Anecdotally, despite more and more rhetoric about creativity, and obeisiance to PISA rankings, schools are increasingly failing to teach basic literacy and numeracy.

As for the effects on creativity, well, this famous TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson must be watched:

Another talk by Sir Ken is about changing education paradigms, and is also well worth viewing:

So, it’s widely accepted that our current educational model simply doesn’t work, and is increasingly unfit for the world that is taking shape. It is failing young people, and it is failing society. It is increasingly  understood that spending time in the outdoors benefits children in many, many ways.

So how can we get it to happen?

The major problem is, of course, access to land. In Glasgow, one of the articles I mentioned above notes:

 [T]he city council is also considering how to use Glasgow’s many magnificent public parks as a base for outdoor nursery shifts, alongside the possibility of registering unused outdoor space close to existing nurseries, and rewilding them on a small scale. “We’re looking at all these spaces around the city: you see bits of scrubby wasteland, but who owns them and can we use them? Why would we not want our parks to be full of little children?”

One example of this coming into existence is West Rise Junior School in East Sussex, England. This is a state school, whose children are drawn from an area with high levels of deprivation; in no way is it a school for the privileged. The visionary headmaster, Mike Fairclough, with the support of the school governors and staff, and of the parents, has leased council land adjoining the school. In the marshes, the children learn practical skills, history, animal husbandry, land management, the safe use of air rifles, shotguns, and knives  – and the children also excel academically and artistically.

The thing is, I think this is an idea whose moment has come. In the UK, about which I’m primarily writing, the future of agriculture is up for grabs. The country’s imminent withdrawal from the EU means an end to the Common Agrigultural Program and its subsidies. Instead, the British government is proposing a new approach, giving public money to farmers in return for common good: including rebuilding soil fertility, flood management, and biodiversity. There is already a movement building for rewilding agricultural land, along the line of the amazingly successful project at the Knepp estate in West Sussex.

The question for Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree, the owners of Knepp, as it for everyone considering rewilding, is: how to make it pay? At Knepp, they sell high-end organic meat, run a glamping site, and organise safaris. Wouldn’t it be amazing to have an education system where as many schools as possible work with rewilding groups and farmers to provide the sort of education provided by West Rise Junior School, backed up by a national cultural youth infrastructure of the kind provided in Wales by Urdd Gobaith Cymru? In this kind of environment:

This is possible. This is actually, really, possible. All the pieces are there, waiting to be put together. Farmers and environmentalists need ways to rewild and make their land pay. Educators are looking for better, more rounded ways to educate our young people. Society needs a system that will produce better-educated, more rounded youth.

As I said above, modern Druids may not wish to organize; they may not wish to go public about their beliefs. But: as parents, and as citizens, we can help this to happen. We can help to create a future society on more Druidic lines. The opportunity is here, waiting for us to act. Druids: will you act?

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