Animal Magic

We spoke to Jon Gray, headmaster at York House School in Hertfordshire, about how introducing a smallholding and resident animals onto the school site has played a crucial role in helping to boost mental health and academic provision…

How did the idea of creating an onsite smallholding first come about?

Just under a decade ago we were involved in the filming of a children’s television series for CBBC called Pet School on our school site. As a result, a number of animal enclosures were erected in our grounds.

It was a very exciting and enjoyable experience, and when the filming was coming to an end, rather than returning the areas of our 50-acre site to their previous condition, we left a couple of enclosures and animal houses in place for us to start developing our own smallholding.

At that stage it was a fun, small-scale idea, but we didn’t predict how significant the development would later become for our school.

What kinds of animals live on-site today?

We house more than 50 animals, including ponies, donkeys, chickens, tortoises, pigs, micro pigs, pygmy goats, chickens and sheep (not including our fishing ponds – which include carp and trout). We had our first lambing season last spring, too, which was a remarkable and beneficial experience for our pupils to see those lambs on the first day of their lives.

How does the school care for and maintain the smallholding?

We have a full-time member of staff who manages the smallholding, cares for the animals and runs activities throughout the day for our pupils to enjoy. At the weekends and in the school holidays, the care is shared between our estates team and the families that are resident on site.

How are the pupils involved in the animals’ lives day-to-day?

Our pupils have outdoor learning as part of their curriculum in nursery, years 1, 3, 5 and 7. This is not only in relation to the smallholding but also working with the animals forms a part of that programme.

We ask all our staff (in anything other than the harshest months of weather) to take at least one lesson per week outside, right across the curriculum. A good number of older pupils choose to take up after-school clubs within the smallholding, too. This group often volunteers to be part of the smallholding team who feed, water, muck out and care for the animals in break times across the week.

When a vet or farrier is visiting, pupils will often observe to learn from the experience. We have ‘colours’ available to those who give a lot to this activity, just in the same way that pupils earn colours for sporting or musical activity.

Has introducing resident animals onto the school’s site helped you to boost your mental health provision and the wellbeing of the children?

It really has, and far more than we had first envisaged. Pupils learn that animals must have their physical needs met in terms of water, food and shelter. They also learn that different seasons bring different challenges. We ensure that the animals have variety and are rotated around our paddocks periodically, so they don’t become bored or suffer negative impact to their mental health. Similarly, no animal lives alone; as the film Into the Wild states – “Happiness is only real when shared.”

We run a programme of wellbeing interventions, which supports those children facing challenges or barriers to learning. This gives them the opportunity to interact, in small groups, with some of the animals.

… animals often reflect the energy, emotion or mood that the child brings with them

Interestingly, animals often reflect the energy, emotion or mood that the child brings with them. If a pupil is noisy or boisterous, the animal will likely back off; if they are calm, the animal will approach and seek to interact in a positive way. That interaction brings a sense of calm and purpose to the child on almost every occasion. Once they understand how beneficial and necessary nurture is for the animals, they can apply that lesson to human interaction as well.

When we run residential trips for pupils, we always ask them to privately write a list of people they would like to share a dorm or tent with, and also to notify us of anyone they would be worried about sharing that space alongside. Every time, we see that the calm and self-reliant child is a popular child while the ‘noisy alpha’ is perhaps less so. We try to come at that same lesson gently through the smallholding interventions.

Does having animals on-site also support academic provision and performance and, if so, how does this translate to subjects like English, science and maths, for example?

Good teachers have always sought to start from where the child is and will deploy available resources to enrich learning experiences. Creative writing, investigative science and maths are made all the more meaningful and exciting when considered in the real world of the smallholding.

For instance, for maths, how much food do we buy for them per year?

How might lambing multiply the flock and how many acres does that flock need to graze? For science, what life can be found in the trout pond and how does their life cycle support biodiversity?

We also run activities for some local schools on topics such as local history looking at when these animals, historically, have first appeared in the landscape.

How does the smallholding support the local community and also the bigger picture of philanthropy?

Our animals are not farmed; they are here until retirement. We try hard to have a positive impact on environment and sustainability, too. Our school eco-council enjoys seeing opportunities for reducing, reusing and recycling. Can the school kitchen waste be fed to the pigs? No, but can we grow vegetables in the gardening clubs that can supplement and vary their diet? Yes.

As an educational charity, we get children from lots of different contexts to come and enjoy learning and activities around the smallholding, including year groups from local schools having the chance to camp out, to do some wild cooking and enjoy interaction with the animals.

The majority of animals come from rescue centres as part of our sustainability agenda. A few years back the aim was to ‘do no harm’, but today’s world asks for more. So, that target has evolved into ‘We must demonstrate societal good.’

What is next for the smallholding? Are you introducing any new animals or taking part in any other related initiatives?

Most recently, we are becoming a release site for injured and rescued animals, so we will see barn owls, a herd of fallow deer and a sparrowhawk released on the site, alongside a resident small herd of deer inside a large and wooded paddock. These deer will not be domesticated but will remain as wild animals.

Being a release centre for rescued and previously injured wild animals is an exciting development, and a resident herd of fallow and Chinese water deer is of benefit to those animals, alongside adding to the experience of children viewing them in a natural but contained habitat.

We recently hosted a Ted Talk on site on the theme of ‘Think Globally, Act Locally’ which was a fascinating exercise to see what different pupils did with that title. That experience, and the smallholding, support part of our wish to give the pupils here a long-term and selfless sense of purpose, so that when they enter and influence the world as adults, they take those lessons with them for the betterment of all.


About York House
York House is an independent prep school for girls and boys aged 3–13 years of age. Founded in 1910, with a rich history, the school is set in 50 acres of stunning grounds and has been located just outside Croxley Green in Hertfordshire since 1966.

While the school exceeds academically and pastorally, York House is passionate about inspiring a love of learning with a sense of adventure, while celebrating the importance of a genuine childhood.

Offering a high-quality experience in outdoor education, art, sport, music, drama and all other aspects of the curriculum, the school is committed to nurturing confident, self-reliant pupils in a safe, caring, positive and stimulating environment.

www.york-house.com


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