There is a lot of talk these days about how children are no longer allowed to be children, hedged in as they are by rules and our fears, and the Daily Mail syndrome where everything is going to hell in a bucket and we’re all going with it.
Yesterday I spent the day at Beaumanor Hall, a kind of outward bound type education centre in Leicestershire, with sixty children under the age of six. We were taking part in a Stick Man adventure day.
For those of you who are not conversant with the Stick Man, he is a character by the perennially popular Julia Donaldson of The Gruffalo fame. Stick Man lives in The Family Tree with his stick family, until one day he accidentally finds himself on an odyssey, wondering if he will ever make it home.
Our Early Years and Year One theme this term has been Into the Woods. There has been much den making, hibernating, Gruffalo spotting and hedgehog staring as a result. The Stick Man day was the perfect way to round the topic off. The children were all hysterical with excitement. The adults, given the weather over the last few days, not so much.
On Tuesday we had bright sunshine, torrential showers, snow and howling wind in quick succession. The Stick Man day is billed as an adventure ‘whatever the weather’, but I have to say I was dubious about it. It is not so much the whatever it was ‘all the weather’ I was concerned about.
Parents had been advised that things would get muddy, and it was quite amazing to see the wet weather gear that children were sporting, and how many changes of clothes it is possible to cram into a ruck sack. By the time we were ready to set off, it looked like we were going on a polar expedition – which given the current weather, would not have been improbable.
We had four activities to do over the space of our day. While the children were being read Stick Man and getting in the mood to explore, the adults were whisked all over the grounds and instructed on how to guide the children through the activities. Then we were split into groups and left to our own devices.
There were twelve children and four adults in our group, and we started our morning with an adventure in the woods. We had various tasks to complete as we walked, as well as the job of finding ‘treasure’ which we were instructed to lash to a stout stick. We were given a soggy piece of string for this purpose. I was in charge of this. This is about the limits of my capabilities to be fair – chief string carrier.
After our woodland adventure, we had to complete an obstacle course using sticks and balls and quoits and lots of directional language to get us ‘home’ safely.
After lunch, which we desperately needed, more to thaw out than anything else, we moved on to visiting the Stick Man’s family tree. The family tree was an enormous cedar tree, which the children could climb in and up, as well as making houses of their own for Stick Man.
We finished the day with sand pictures and archery, all using the ubiquitous stick.
As you know, I am not a joiny inny sort of woman. I HATE physical activity. I HATE getting wet and cold and muddy and I HATE bonding exercises. I am the least likely person to go on a Stick Man adventure day and enjoy myself. The only other person I can think of who would be less likely than me to embrace this kind of thing is Barbara Cartland.
Having said that, it was brilliant.
The children had the time of their lives. The squelched through mud. They flung themselves about in the woods, poking wood lice, toppling boulders, scrambling over great mountains of fallen branches and getting excited about the possibility of dragons living in the wood pile (something narsty in the woodshed). They played pooh sticks. They found all kinds of gloriously horrible treasure which I dutifully tied to my stout stick, and which, by the time we had finished it, made it look like something from a shamanic sweat lodge.
They climbed trees with gusto. Even the children who told me that they ‘couldn’t’ climb trees found themselves dangling, bat like from various branches shouting: ‘Look at me!’ while I tried not to think about how close their eye balls were to pointy sticks. My favourite comment of the whole day was from a child who was about twelve feet above me in the tree canopy: ‘Look at me Mrs. Wheatley! I’ve climbed higher than Jesus!’
The weather was pretty kind to us in the morning, staying dry but cold and soggy. By lunch time it was beginning to hurl it down, but this didn’t dampen the children’s ardour. They loved it. They splashed and rolled and stomped in all the puddles. Our obstacle course basically became an Olympic diving pool as they threw themselves off of balance beams into calf deep puddles, surging with muddy bubbles. In fact, the mud really made the day. Certain activities would have been much less fun without gigantic mud puddles to liven them up.
There were a few falls during the day, children hurling themselves about in mud will eventually topple over. What impressed me was that apart from the odd tear brought about by the shock of the fall, they were stoic to a man, wiping themselves down, getting up again and heading straight back into the melee. Even the child most like me, the one who didn’t really like the outdoors and wasn’t particularly thrilled by the rain, got on with every activity with dogged determination.
It was glorious to spend the day with them, and wonderful to see that really, children haven’t changed a great deal over the years, despite what everyone says. If you give them the chance to fall face first in a mud puddle, shin up a tree, poke things with sticks and get so filthy you can’t recognise them, they will oblige. With absolute pleasure.