By Fiona Read, Head of Bedales Nursery & Pre-prep, Dunannie
The world is slowly reopening. As I write, those of us in England are anticipating being allowed to mix indoors once more, to enjoy again the human contact we used to take for granted, and to travel – albeit in a limited way for now.
It is exciting and welcome, and also a time to think carefully about how we want, and need, the world to be in the future. Central to this is our relationship to the natural world, with the COVID pandemic having underlined that we simply do as we please at our peril.
So, why should any of this be a concern for a pre-prep school head as she thinks about her school’s curriculum? One answer is that children are inheriting from us adults a world in which the pressures we place upon it mean it is more likely to bite us back. Consequently, exploring our relationship with nature and understanding the consequences of the choices we make are important. For example, COVID is widely understood to have originated at the uneasy interface of human and wild animal populations, and to have spread quickly through burgeoning urban populations, and our ever-growing appetite for migration – these are both the products of our age, and associated with a range of other ecological and human problems. If we are to avoid repeats of the pandemic, as well as other unwanted impacts, we need to rethink how we do things. Today’s children will be the next generation of problem solvers and will need to find creative solutions to the global challenges they will face in the future.
At least in part, that is why Dunannie has incorporated the Harmony Project into its framework for learning. Inspired by the vision of HRH The Prince of Wales and designed to help schools develop a curriculum inspired by nature, the project explores how applying principles of nature – such as interdependence and adaptation – can guide us in the ways we live both individually and collectively.
An understandable response might be that this is a little young for children to be grappling with such ideas. However, recent protests underline the importance of a healthy planet to young people, and at Dunannie we have been struck by the interest and understanding of our children. We don’t need to introduce them to the idea that there is a relationship between the choices we make and their wider impacts – they already know.
Equally important is that our adoption of the Harmony Project does not happen from a standing start. The Bedales ethos as established by founder John Badley – ‘Head, Hand and Heart’ – prescribes an education for the whole person, combining the academic, the practical and the social. Accordingly, we already take every opportunity to get children learning outside, which they love, with most, if not all, subjects benefitting from the connection. The time they traditionally spend identifying birds, growing vegetables and caring for lambs is as much a part of them growing into their adult selves as is time spent in the classroom and library.
Curriculum and formal learning aside, our application of the principles of nature through the Harmony Project can better ensure our pupils’ wellbeing and connection to their world – a particularly hot topic right now. In 2020, the re-opening of schools saw a renewed appeal for government to support the use of outdoor learning in response to the pandemic. In a letter to the Chair of the Education Select Committee, the group ‘Our Bright Future’, which included representatives from the Wildlife Trusts, the National Youth Agency, the Centre for Sustainable Energy and Friends of the Earth, identified recovery from the pandemic as an opportunity to reassess “how we socialise, work and learn”. Research shows that time spent learning outdoors and interacting with the natural world can raise children’s educational attainment, resilience, and wellbeing. The group proposed that this should be the subject of a government inquiry, with a view to making outdoor learning part of the regular curriculum. We are far from alone, then.
This may sound rather ‘high concept’ and a big change, but in practice it need be neither. Rather, the Harmony Project brings additional focus to many of the things that we already do and love, and will see us do more. Ours is a broad and flexible curriculum and, shaped by the interests and responses of our children, it will evolve and grow in true Bedales tradition –learning with a cloak of fun.