Science, culture and the great outdoors: the rights of every child

June 6th 2011

We have it in our power to build the world anew.”

Thomas Paine 1737 -1809

To celebrate 25 years of wedded bliss (well, most of the time), my husband and I headed off on a week of cultural events, stopping in the little town of Lewes.  I was surprised to discover that Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man (1791), had lived here from 1768 to 1774, before heading to America – where he not only changed their constitution but was also central to naming it the United States of America.

For those of you less familiar, The Rights of Man posited that people have natural rights along with responsibilities, but can revolt if the government is failing to safeguard those natural rights and interests. Paine also argued for the ‘Rights of Infants’ to be free from abuse and poverty.  It’s a modern message and probably worth a re-read, especially for those of us advocating on behalf of children.

I was equally reminded by my long-wedded husband that Thomas Paine also featured in one of his favourite Bob Dylan songs, As I went out one morningThat set the tone of the CDs for the rest of the journey; Mozart to Bob Dylan, both of whom would feature in my Desert Island Discs (having already submitted my collection to the reader’s choice, with a million to one chance they will be played on June 11th). Now, Desert Island Discs being one of my favourite programmes on Radio 4, I have on occasion written to its guests as a direct response to hearing their world view on air; one in particular being Professor David Phillips, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry.  I asked his opinion about how we ensure science remains a crucial focus of the Early Years curriculum, as the basis for inspiring interest and excitement in the subject by our youngest children.

At LEYF, we recently conducted a piece of action research in this very area, led in the main by two exemplary practitioners, Maria Anemouri from Eastbury Children’s Centre Nursery and Michelle Samuels from Marsham Street Community Nursery. We asked the question: was science too focused on biology? Upon investigation, we found that it was, and so began a journey which included sending both Maria and Michelle to the Children Scientist Exhibition in Edinburgh. They came back bursting with ideas – along with a great story about staying in a guest house straight out of Fawlty Towers. The simple outcome was a whole set of learning activities they have since developed – from making toothpaste to every kind of volcano – thereby extending the interest of children, parents and staff in more chemical and physics based approaches. It was written up as an article, Putting the Sparkle Back into Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, for EYE magazine (vol 12, 8th December 2010), and is now set to form a central plank in the LEYF curriculum.

On a final note this week, I was delighted to hear from Julie Weiss, manager of our Luton Street Community Nursery and a great community organiser herself, how she had arrived safely at Paddington Farm in Glastonbury for a long weekend with seven children, two staff and one apprentice. In this world of risk aversion, health and safety mania and litigious attitudes, I am so proud that LEYF staff are still willing to go beyond their core duties to build in the extra cultural capital which makes such a difference to so many of our children; and equally proud that parents allow their children to go. The farm itself, of which I am proud to be chair, has been reconfigured into a social enterprise (surprise, surprise) and offers a lovely country retreat – with among other delights a willow play area, clay pizza oven, forest school and animals set in a beautiful 43 acre organic farm. It’s a beautiful experience for so many children who rarely get beyond the Edgware Road. I really do think quality indicators for nurseries need to recognise outings, trips and holidays for children, as sadly many hardly venture beyond the nursery door.

It made me wonder what Margaret McMillan (1860 – 1931) might have thought of this attitude – with her movement for outside nurseries and fresh air – or Octavia Hill (1838 – 1912), who set up housing with built in open spaces for children to play as well as organising  holidays and countryside experiences for the children of Marylebone…

Thomas Paine complained in the 18th century ‘These are the times that try men’s souls’; it’s a sentiment I certainly share.