In the fourth of our fortnightly series of posts all about Open Farm Sunday and engaging the public on your farm, Tamara Hall of Molescroft Farms Ltd. and Yorkshire and Humberside Open Farm Sunday Regional Co-ordinator, explains how she started out with Open Farm School Days and her top tips for school visits.
I first decided to have school visits on the Friday before Open Farm Sunday to make better use of the activities we had set up and to make full use of the farm being uber tidy! In addition, it would publicise our Open Farm Sunday event. One thing I thought at previous Open Farm Sunday’s, was that the children didn’t ask as many questions when they were with their parents and the parents were loath to look foolish by asking questions. Having the children visit us in ‘school mode’ on the Friday they could learn plenty and show off to their parents on the following Sunday, inadvertently teaching the parents!
Easy in theory, so in a fit of enthusiasm during April 2011 I sent hand-written invites to our eight local primary schools, along with detailed information packs and promises of help with transport costs. I waited excitedly for the pre-stamped reply postcard to flood back. A couple of weeks later I had only heard back from one of the schools who had visited several times before that they would like to come. I think a couple of others eventually sent back the postcards with the ‘No thanks, not this year’ box ticked. I then quickly emailed a number of schools over a larger area and soon had seven schools signed up, one bringing two classes. Once I had recovered from the feelings of rejection and annoyance at how much time I had spent lovingly writing the invites, I started trying to find out why there had been so little interest. Over the past three years I have worked out the following:
- Many schools arrange their visits in September for the academic year. They only have funding for a certain number of visits per year so they need to be organised. If you want to get a large number of schools you need to start inviting them in the autumn term.
- Some teachers aren’t interested in visiting a farm. You are best to invite more schools and get teachers who do genuinely want to bring their children as they will get more out of the visit and you will enjoy it more.
- Emails work well rather than post (cheaper and easier). Only a number will reach the right teacher but again, you need to send them to more schools. Keep it brief as the teachers won’t have time to read pages, just say what you will be delivering and say you would like to make an appointment with the head teacher to explain more about the visit. Follow this up with a phone call.
It will definitely help if you can fund their transport. I have heard that some parents won’t even pay £2 toward a school trip, which means the whole class can’t go. You only need to pay half of the costs, which should be £75-100 per coach. I have found Agricultural Societies quite helpful and Gleadells now help fund our visits, so also ask your business contacts. Ask face-to-face and ask early.
Once you have the schools signed up you need to keep them happy. The main thing they liked about our events is the organisation. They need timetables and maps of the farmyard if they’ll be self-guided between activities. As with Open Farm Sunday, signage is essential. I find this part is more important to the teachers than linking it with the curriculum – they will only visit if food and farming is relevant to what they are already planning to do in the classroom.
The other response we have had is how interactive it needs to be. I started off only wanting 7-11 year olds, I prefer talking to the older ones as they’re so entertaining. However, schools like to bring 5-7 year olds since it fits well with what they are doing in the classroom. This age group needs more hands-on activities but all ages learn more by doing than by listening. We have now made our groups smaller with 15-20 children in each group. If you are funded for Educational Access through HLS these smaller groups still count as a full visit as long as you get a feedback form for each group.
We have eight activities areas around the main farm yard, each lasting for 20 minutes and so eight school groups visit each day. Our hands-on activities which also work for Open Farm Sunday include:
- Candling eggs at various stages of incubation and handling day-old chicks. Our local incubator shop runs this but you could also ask another farmer to do this for you. This is very good for teaching life cycles, which all children study.
- Planting potatoes. Get the children to help plant potatoes in buckets (in compost rather than soil) then harvest the previous groups potatoes which they planted. It doesn’t matter that they haven’t grown – you can explain what does happen. They will remember that potatoes grow under the soil.
- Grinding wheat. You can buy cheap hand grain mills on eBay and the children love to grind a handful of wheat into flour. You can then get them to sieve it to show them where bran comes from. This helps connect the grain we grow with the food they eat at home.
- Milk a cow. All the info you need to make a pretend cow for the children to milk is here on the FACE website
- Make a scarecrow. You can buy cheap disposable white overalls and ask local charity shops to save you some clothes that aren’t good enough to sell in return for a donation. Get the schools to bring the heads – balloons covered in papier-mâché is a good pre-visit activity. The children will love stuffing the overalls with straw and dressing them up. You can have a prize for the best scarecrow. Furthermore you can explain why you need to put bangers on the farm!
Whether you decide to invite one school or several, I’d recommend hosting school visits they are both rewarding and great fun!
Take part in LEAF’s Open Farm School Days 2nd to 13th June. For more information contact LEAF: 024 7641 3911 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tamara Hall runs Molescroft Farms Ltd, a family owned arable farm in East Yorkshire. Alongside the arable farm 10% of the land is in Higher Level Stewardship and she started a Community Allotment in 2012, with 70 plots let and with a waiting list of over 50. She started hosting Open Farm Sunday in 2007 with an invited group for a farm walk helped by the RSPB. In 2011, she ran an Open Farm Friday by inviting local schools to publicise their Open Farm Sunday. This evolved into Open Farm School Days with 1,000 visitors over the week in 2012. Tamara has been the Regional Coordinator for Yorkshire and Humberside for four years.