With increasing pressure on schools to maintain their high academic standards, spending time ‘off curriculum’ can be hard to justify. When the idea was pitched for a whole day of internationally themed workshops at Moor Park, in Ludlow, more than a few eyebrows were raised.
In attempting to justify such disregard for timetables, routine, structure and curriculum, the reasons given were not really anything to do with understanding different cultures and countries (all very valid and good), but much more far-reaching and significant; stretching the children’s boundaries, giving children of all abilities responsibility for the care of others, teamwork, being without one’s peers and the usual scaffolding which make regular days easy and comfortable. It is these challenges and opportunities for collaborations, which make such days truly memorable and worthwhile experiences.
Children at Moor Park are used to knowing, playing with and working alongside children of all ages. Our regular Paired Reading sessions, where older children come and read to the younger children, were already hugely popular. Within the boarding environment, our children stand out as being exceptionally good at working together; they are often tasked with working in teams with children older or younger than themselves – and they love it. On the playground it is also noticeable, where games between children of differing ages are just as common as those between peers.
However, what was suggested was going to be on a bigger scale. For Better Together Day, every child in the school would be vertically grouped, with children from every other age group in the school. The day itself was packed with an abundance of activities; Zulu dancing, exotic animals, yoga, aboriginal art, drum workshops, teepee building, taekwondo, Scottish and Irish dancing, Chinese writing and world sports to name but a few.
One of the most interesting things to watch was the freedom that the alternative groupings gave children to be ‘a slightly different self’. Once children have been within a year group for a while, they take on set roles; the leaders, the followers, the loud and the quiet, the funny and the studious.
The complexities of these groupings sometimes make it hard for children to step away from the mould they have been put in. Suddenly, lift them into a situation where they are able to interact with a totally different set of children and we found characters coming forth, which we did not often see. Children who are often quietly in the background, stepped forward to lead a challenge and children who would often shy away from new situations, suddenly found themselves taking charge of the youngest children in their group, organising, explaining, adapting and caring for their needs throughout the day.
How often do we really push children outside of their comfort zones? Prep schools are wonderfully comfortable bubbles
As a prep school, we claim to prepare children for what they are to experience in their senior schools; the next step. And yet how often do we really push children outside of their comfort zones? Prep schools are wonderfully comfortable bubbles; some of our children have been here for 13 years. If we really are to prepare them properly then every so often we need to stretch their elastic a little bit. Without the usual support structures of their peer group, many of our children may have felt rather uncomfortable. Now, having finished the day with such positive outcomes, there is no doubt that the next time they are faced with something new or different, they will approach it with a more positive frame of mind.
Working alongside the older children in our school had a massively positive impact on the youngest children. They love their company, look up to them, talk to them and share their ideas with them in a way that they do not always do with the adults in school. The reverse is also true; teenagers can be quite ‘self-centred’ individuals and spending time where their main focus was not themselves but someone else was good to see.
A number of new children had joined the school just a week before and we were keen to find ways to help them to feel part of our community as quickly as possible. And what better way to celebrate their arrival? By pushing the whole school out of their social comfort zone, our new pupils felt just the same as everybody else; one of the gang and no more or less ‘in the know’ than children who had been here for years.
The day ended with a performance from our wonderful dance group, The Mighty Zulu Nation Theatre Company. The sight of the whole school community, including staff, pupils, parents and even the Headmaster in his kilt, dancing, clapping, whooping and chanting together, was really very special indeed.
Finally, and most importantly for me, the job of any school is not just to fill heads with knowledge and education. It’s not just passing exams; we are nurturing a whole person, not just a brain. Encouraging children to think independently and creatively, to learn not to be afraid to try something. We really have not done our children justice if we do not seek to engender in them a sense of adventure, caring, confidence and most importantly self-esteem.
Staff in schools across the country work incredibly hard to ensure that the day-to-day experience of the children is not just good, but outstanding. Our usual provision of academic, sport, arts and extracurricular activities has to rival that of any school in the country. And yet, it is probably not the ‘every day’ experience that children will remember as they go forth from their prep school. It is the unusual, unique and probably quite challenging experiences that are provided for them beyond the curriculum that will have the biggest impact.
Credit for the initial idea has to go to Lynn Palmer, Deputy Head at Eagle House Preparatory School in Berkshire, where they regularly run their amazing Make-A-Difference theme days. Thanks also to Papplewick School, for the exotic animals workshop run by science teacher, Steve Elkington.