Childhood memories are often connected to the natural world. Adults, when asked, will remember a walk through a wood, or counting the spots on a ladybird; they think of grassy dens, tree-houses and scooping up tadpoles from spring streams.
For Clare Morpurgo, who set up the educational charity Farms for City Children in 1976 with her husband Michael, the acclaimed children's author, the memories that have informed her life's work stem from the village of Iddesleigh in West Devon.
It was here that Clare spent summer holidays, roaming its deep lanes and coombes, developing a life-long love of nature, "I spent hours poking around in ponds and peering down earthy holes," she says. The wonder Clare derived from nature sparked her idea for the charity, which in the past 35 years has given 75,000 inner city children a residential week of 'muck and magic': a time of purposeful activity and learning about the countryside.
"I fell in love with a Devon valley as a child and wanted other children to have the incredible natural experiences that enriched my early life." In September 2012 she published her first book: a collection of poems chosen by Clare and Michael, entitled, Where My Wellies Take Me.
The philosophy behind Farms for City Children was visionary. A growing body of research and literature today suggests that children are suffering from a lack of connection with nature. Earlier this year, a report published by the Natural Trust entitled Natural Childhood revealed that the "evidence of a long-term and dramatic decline in children's relationship with the outdoors is 'overwhelming'" and that "urgent action is needed to bridge this growing gap before it's too late."
Some psychologists and educational authors also believe that this lack of connection with nature is contributing to a range of psychological and physical problems in children, from ADHD, depression and obesity to the more generic "nature deficit disorder", a term coined by Richard Louv, a US-based author.
Peter Kahn, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington and author of the seminal book Children and Nature, which examines the significance of nature during childhood says, "From an evolutionary standpoint we came of age with a rich contact with the natural world. Now we are destroying nature at an astonishing rate, and we're losing this connection. If we continue to disassociate from nature we will adapt, and then we will call it 'normal'. But in the disassociation from nature, there are pervasive physical and psychological costs to us, and to our children."
FFCC The first group of children arrived at Nethercott from a school in Birmingham, in January 1976. 'We began full of enthusiasm and positive ideas" says Clare. "It was not until some time later that we realised what a colossal risk we had taken. We had invested every last penny we had, given up our jobs and moved our family to a different part of the country."
One of the first things they did was to lend the children wellies and waterproofs. "Many of them had no outdoor clothes. They lived in a high-rise block; their school was in the basement. So they walked down through the building to school, then back up to bed. The children hardly ever stepped outside."
The children of '76 followed the strict daily schedule that is still in place today in the charity's three farms: Nethercott, Wick Court - a farm overlooking the Severn River in Gloucestershire - and Treginnis Isaf, perched on a headland in west Wales. At 7.30 am they help to milk the cows. By 9.30 am they are in the yards feeding a variety of animals: Black Rock hens, Emden
geese and Jack Donkeys or, if they are at Wick Court, rare breeds such as Gloucester Old Spot Pigs. After breakfast (most of the food served comes from the farms or is locally sourced), they spend the rest of the day cleaning sheds, preparing fruit for the freezers, apple-pressing or carting barrows of manure between the fields and the vegetable gardens. They witness the birth and death of animals, learn where eggs come and how to groom horses.
Clare's passion for the charity has not diminished in over three decades, nor has her belief in imparting to children the idea that every action should have a positive purpose. "Children visiting the farms need to understand the importance of the tasks they do. If they see that what they have done is constructive and helpful, they feel valuable in themselves."
Clare remembers a child who was profoundly silent before arriving at Nethercott. "His teachers told us that we needed to be gentle with him, as he hadn't spoken at all during his time at school. One evening, Michael saw him across the courtyard, leaning against a stable door. He was about to shout, 'Time to be indoors!' when he saw that it was the boy who didn't speak. And then he realised that the child was talking to the horse, telling him about his day and what he'd done on the farm."
Despite the enduring benefits for children (one teacher from Cheshire wrote
saying, "You have enabled children to have a unique educational experience. It is life changing."), managing the charity has not been without its problems. Fundraising has been a constant uphill struggle. The charity has neither core income nor government funding; for the first eight years, the Morpurgos funded it entirely. Today, schools pay just under two thirds of what it costs per child per week, but the charity has to find the rest elsewhere: from trusts, charitable foundations and by hosting events such as theatrical productions and sponsored cycle rides, all of which help to raise the £350,000 needed each year to ensure that as many children as possible can visit the farms.
One of Clare's childhood inspirations was a man called Sean Rafferty, a Scottish poet who came to live in Iddesleigh and wrote stirring poems about his love for its surrounding valleys. Later, once the Morpurgos had bought Nethercott, they formed a deep friendship with another poet, Ted Hughes.
"We met Ted fishing down by the river one evening," remembers Clare. "He drove a Morris Minor Traveller covered with ferns and moss. Our rapport was instant." Ted Hughes' support for Farms for City Children was unequivocal.
"When he heard we were bringing city children to Nethercott, he backed us wholeheartedly. He felt strongly that humanity is not separate from nature, that it is through an essential connection with nature a person really finds himself." Ted Hughes became the Founding President of Farms for City Children; it was with his help that HRH The Princess Royal became the charity's President, and that the charity received a substantial donation from the Sainsbury's Trust.
In an ideal world, Clare would give every child in the UK a week at one of the farms as part of their primary education; the philosophy that spurred her on 36 years ago, is now being echoed by others. Fiona Reynolds, the Director General of the National Trust said in 2012, "As a nation we need to do everything we can to make it easy and safe for our children to get outdoors", while the Eden Project's 'Mud Between Your Toes' scheme engages children with nature by running wild adventure days and outdoor pursuits programmes for teenagers.
Another of Clare's early inspirations was the humanitarian Albert Schweitzer, who famously said: "Do something wonderful. People may imitate it." It seems that they are.
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