There is a scene in the Rogers and Hammerstein movie classic The Sound of Music where the widower father of the Von Trapp family, Georg, is driving home with his friend and intended wife to be. They pass a group of children climbing in trees.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” he re-assures his fiancé. “They’re just some local urchins.”
Of course, they turn out to be his own children. Horrified, he berates the teacher-governess who is responsible for their behaviour and threatens to dismiss her. But she fights back and says: “They need to play, to climb trees, to swim in the lake, to get dirty, to wear ‘play’ clothes, not the uniforms that you put them in.”
It is a classic scene of speaking truth to power for the rights of children – where a young, female teacher stands up to a middle-aged, military father. The young woman goes on to teach the children to sing, dance, play music – and ultimately re-connect with the love of their father.
It is interesting to note that the hero of the film Maria Kutschera, the postulate nun (played of course by Julie Andrews in the 1965 blockbuster and based very much on a true story) graduated from the Vienna State Teachers College for Progressive Education in 1923, aged only eighteen.
Some years ago, though not that long, a colleague and I took sixty children on an adventure holiday to the Lake District. We stayed at a youth hostel that had a huge garden with an enormous oak tree that stood as high as a five-storey building, the branches of which stretched out like a massive skirt all the way to the ground. We arrived after a long journey from London and once the hostel warden had introduced the kids to their dorms, we sent them off to unpack and told them they could explore and play in the garden until dinner time, an hour or so hence.
The shouts and squeals of glee and joy could be heard all around the hostel grounds as the children explored and played with each other in nothing-less than total care-free gay abandon. “This is what teaching is all about,” I remembered thinking and looked forward to a week of learning new things in an atmosphere of fun and adventure.
My colleague and I unpacked, sorted out a few straggling kids, chatted to the warden and then went down to see what the others were up to in the garden. We stood on the terrace and looked up.
At a conservative estimate, two-thirds of the sixty kids we had brought with us had found their way high into the branches of the oak tree. Those left on the grass were being encouraged and helped to get an initial foothold in to the lower branches; while the more confident were literally racing each other to be the first to get to the very top of the tree which without any exaggeration, stood more than sixty feet from the ground.
For a second I managed to admire the beauty of the scene – it actually resembled an enormous Christmas tree decorated with little fairies and angels spread across every branch. Right on cue, it now had an angel propped at the very pinnacle, only this one was dressed in a t-shirt and short pants and was waving down at me, shouting: “Sir! Look! I’m at the top of the tree!”
“Yes,” I said. “I can see…”
To say my heart leapt into my mouth would be to completely understate my physical reaction. Rather, I was like one of those characters in a Loony-Tunes cartoon where my eyes were popping in and out on storks and the ventricles of my heart were pounding like steam hammers on the outside of my chest.
Then in my mind a different scene quickly began to unfold – a gust of wind came from nowhere, the tree swayed violently back and forth, lyrical cries of children’s voices called out as they fell one by one from their perches, vainly grabbing at snapping branches as they hurtled towards the ground followed by a succession of dull thuds as lifeless bodies piled up on the grass in front of me.
Then before my eyes came yet another image – the one you see in every Hollywood ‘B’ movie where a tabloid newspaper comes spinning towards the front of the screen then halts upright with a headline blaring: “Hopelessly stupid and negligent teacher kills sixty sweet innocent young lives in massive oak tree pile-up horror!!!”
I shook the images from my mind and turned to my colleague, whose own child happened to be a pupil in my class and was up there in some of the highest branches with her classmates.
“OK Jean,” I said. “What do we do now…? Either we scream and bellow at them to come down – and perhaps frighten the life out of them – thereby increasing the risk of an accident… Or we tell them – as calmly as we can – to be very careful, to stay within the main tree branches and not to climb any further than they feel confident to.” (Which, it seems obvious now, is what they were doing anyway.)
So, that’s what we did.
Though the next twenty minutes were some of the longest of my life, in retrospect, I’m glad they were – because we saw literally dozens of those kids climb to the very top of the that beautiful giant oak tree. When they got there, many waved and shouted down things like: “I’m on top of the world!” or “I’m the king of the castle!”
And to them, they were.
When we sat down for dinner half an hour or so later, they were sharing their excitement and achievement with each other. One child turned to me and said: “Sir, from the top of the tree you could see over the top of all the buildings! You could see for miles! You could the whole world!”
For the rest of the week we had exciting adventures canoeing, sailing, rock climbing, abseiling and ‘ghyll scrambling’ – and for those of you who don’t know what ‘ghyll scrambling’ is – it’s climbing through the rocky gullies of steep mountain streams where children get drenched from head to foot in icy cold water and caked in thick mud. It is of course, fantastic fun and they loved every minute.
These days I rarely meet children at primary schools who have been on school journeys where they can engage in genuine adventure – such as climb trees, canoe, sail, rock climb or abseil. I meet an alarming number of young adults who can’t even ride a bike confidently.
It seems to me that some where along the line, we as the teaching profession lost the collective and professional will to challenge the stifling constraints of ‘health and safety’ and face-down the ‘nay-sayers whose obsession with ‘risk assessments’ vetoed almost every opportunity for children to experience real adventure.
Adventure activities are every child’s birthright. I also think they are every child’s educational entitlement. And I think, like Maria Kutschera, we should be speaking truth to power and aver the rights of children to experience adventure even where parents (and politicians) will misguidedly negate them.
Having said that, we may need to start with re-thinking the names of the institutions where we train teachers. How about ‘Colleges for Progressive Education’?
For advice on planning school trips:
The Outdoor Education Advisers’ Panel is the place to start: http://oeap.info/what-we-do/oeap-advice
The NUT also has a useful briefing document on planning school visits and a copy of the Manifesto for Learning Outside the Classroom at http://www.teachers.org.uk/node/5410
Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk. You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk. His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) is published in March 2014.