South Downs in Poetry

March 1, 2017

‘A heartfelt thank you, it was a really magical and inspiring project that has helped us to lift our heads up once again and see what’s out there!’

It’s emails like this that continue our firm belief that every child should experience a National Park first hand.

Students from Rodmell explore the National Park

Contact with nature improves children’s ability to concentrate and their self-discipline. And yet children in the UK have less contact with nature now than at any time in the past.

With more than 846 schools within 5km of the National Park boundary the South Downs is on the doorstep for more than half a million children and young people.

“It’s our responsibility to inspire a lifelong commitment to enjoying, understanding and caring for the natural environment,” says Amanda Elmes, Learning and Engagement Manager for the South Downs National Park. “Not just in reaching the children living here but also to support urban and under-represented groups to benefit from all that the South Downs has to offer.”

“Research shows that playing in a natural environment improves young people’s social, mental and physical development.

“We believe that learning in the special landscapes of our National Park can add even more inspiration to an educational experience. ‘Our South Downs’ is our approach to getting schools involved in hands-on, real life, local learning here.”

Amanda and her team have been developing this approach since 2012, working with schools and outdoor learning providers, running an annual teachers conference and developing an online Learning Zone.

They have also developed the South Downs Curriculum which takes every subject that has to be taught through the National Curriculum and maps how it can be brought to life in and outside the classroom through resources, activities and learning opportunities in the National Park.

More than 1,600 teachers and 73,900 children have now been engaged with the National Park through this work.

Maxine Hunt is Outdoor Learning Coordinator for South Malling School in Lewes, who have been part of the Our South Downs network since 2013 and using it to teach geography, science and art. The school now makes regular use of Malling Down, the hill behind the school, and the surrounding area with the entire school joining in a butterfly watch day. Year 2 visit every year as part of their learning journey, to help them identify local landmarks and to sketch the trees and fallen branches in the woodland.

In 2016 Maxine got Year 4 involved in the South Downs Alphabet, as an opportunity to develop the schools outdoor curriculum with English as the focus.

“Being outside stimulates, energises and promotes self-esteem and a sense of well-being,” says Maxine. “We see the children grow in confidence as their interest in their local environment is stimulated. They love the freedom of being outside the classroom, learning about their own school environment and seeing it in a different way.

“The Alphabet project was an ideal opportunity to get the children to become more aware of their nearby environment – two thirds of the class had never been up on Malling Down independently – it gave us an authentic and interesting approach to teaching English.”

Layout 1The South Downs Alphabet is a partnership venture between the South Downs National Park Authority and The Write House – an independent group of local historians and writers. It is generously supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Snake River Press. Conceived by Drs June Goodfield and Peter Robinson, the project is a celebration of Sussex heritage and the National Park, taking inspiration from writer Eleanor Farjeon who published a series of poems called A Sussex Alphabet in 1939.

“Working in small groups the children visited Malling Down recording what they could see, hear and smell – with time to explore freely as well as more structured discussion,” continues Maxine. Back in the classroom over the next three weeks they shared their experiences and interpreted Eleanor Farjeon’s original Alphabet, looking at language, structure and how she might have used her own experiences to develop her ideas.

“After some experimentation with writing poems using different techniques they choose a letter of the alphabet and their subject. A lot of time was spent feeding back to each other, improving and sharing their writing until they were happy with what they had produced. Finally they worked on presentation and illustration to complement their poems.

“They loved it! They really enjoyed the whole experience and felt that there was a purpose to their learning, as well as an excitement about how they were learning.”

“Many of the children in that class continued to bring in poems they had written over the following weeks and now, as Year 5 students, we can see their confidence and a much more relaxed attitude to writing poetry.”

The children themselves said: ‘Interesting as well as fun, going outside gives us first-hand experience and makes it easier to write.’

‘Visiting the Downs really helped keep it in my head.’

‘We had time to think, it was peaceful.’

As well as a total of nine schools the South Downs Alphabet also got seven University of the Third Age groups involved in workshops and writing poems – making it truly intergenerational. Twenty six of these have now been selected and brought together into a new South Downs Alphabet published by Snake River Press this March, including a poem from a South Malling School student.

It’s fair to say that using the National Park’s resources is making a difference in the school: “I keep thinking of ways I can get more children outside and more often, we have so much on our doorstep!” says Maxine.

“One result of the success of the South Downs Alphabet project has been a desire to incorporate much more of our local environment into our school curriculum and learning journeys throughout the year. I’m undertaking Forest School training in June and have taken additional first aid training to allow more frequent access to the South Downs. We also hope to train and support other teachers to take their lessons outside. For science, humanities, outdoor learning, school picnic, art, English, maths – we want to make as much use of it as possible!”

The South Downs Alphabet and a reprint of a Sussex Alphabet, published by Snake River Press will be available to buy from 21 March 2017 www.snakeriverpress.co.uk/

Teachers can register for a free place at the Our South Downs 2017 conference