Learning through Landscapes CEO, Carley Sefton, reflects on a difficult year

This week my family and I sat down to watch the live streaming of a socially distanced version of A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic. It was wonderful, and I would highly recommend getting a ticket. I was surprised by two things during the performance. Firstly, I had forgotten how often charity is mentioned in the play and secondly, in a scene where the actors gathered food on stage to take to the surprise Christmas celebration at Bob Cratchits house, text came up on the screen asking audience members to donate to the FoodCycle charity and highlighted the issues we have in the UK around food poverty.

I found it heart breaking to think that 150 years later UNICEF are now supporting children to be fed in the UK.

Having worked with Fairshare in a previous job I understand first-hand the challenges people face around food security, especially at this time of year. At the end of the play Andrew Lincoln who played Scrooge spoke about Charles Dickens writing A Christmas Carol in 1843 when food poverty was an issue faced by many families in Dickensian Britain, I found it heart breaking to think that 150 years later UNICEF are now supporting children to be fed in the UK.

2020 has been a year which has challenged most of us personally and professionally, but there have also been many things that have brought us together. One of those has been the increased understanding of the important role which charities play in our society. From Captain Tom’s 100th Birthday walk for the NHS, Marcus Rashford’s work with food banks, and the Black Lives Matter movement raising the profile of anti-racism organisations, the third sector has rarely been out of the headlines this year.

Schoolchild holds a handful of autumn leaves

Being an outdoor learning and play charity I sometimes worry about the importance of Learning through Landscapes role in comparison to larger charities that tackle some of the biggest challenges in society. But this year, during lockdown, it became increasingly obvious how important spending time outdoors is especially for the physical and mental wellbeing of children and young people.

We were lucky enough to receive a Heritage Emergency Fund grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund to support Covid-19 recovery across the UK. We used it to create the My School, My Planet programme to work with educators across the four nations as children returned to school post lockdown.

Secondary school children learn outdoors

I don’t think when we started the project, we fully understood the need and the impact that My School, My Planet would have. I can say, with great honesty, that there were many members of the team who were reduced to tears by the experiences of so many schools and young people. We encountered children with no access to outdoor space, who have not been outside in months because of shielding parents, and many who have lost family members during the pandemic. We were working with some of the most vulnerable young children in our society where the impact of the Covid crisis had meant that they witnessed and experienced situations within their homes that no child ever should.

For some of them just being outside with their hands in the dirt was a brand-new experience and, I hope for a lot of them a life changing one.

Throughout the programme, the children and young people involved explore their own cultural identity and their connection to nature. For some of them just being outside with their hands in the dirt was a brand-new experience and, I hope for a lot of them a life changing one.

Charities come in many different forms, but I believe the work of the third sector plays an important role as we move into 2021 and face any further challenges that this pandemic throws at us.

Children enjoy wet weather in their playground

Over the coming year Learning through Landscapes will continue to focus on supporting schools and the children and young people that have been affected so greatly by Covid-19.

We are also currently running a fundraising campaign to provide schools with outdoor clothing so children can go outdoors to learn and play in all weathers. Someone recently said to me that this seems a little superficial, when there were more ‘important’ things to donate money to, but when surveyed over 50% of teachers told us that one of the main barriers to getting outdoors was children not having suitable outdoor clothing. We feel it is anything but superficial, growing up in poverty can have incredibly complex effects and the impact ripples to every part of life. If parents are struggling to feed their families and keep their home warm, then other things simply aren’t within reach like the expenses of suitable clothing and engaging in extracurricular activities which we know are so important in shaping passions and interests.

Experiential learning will play an important part in helping children understand and process what they have been through, but it will also give them the important opportunities to have experiences that will help shape their futures.

When working with groups of educators I often ask them to think back to what their greatest memories of their education was. I can honestly say that in the majority of cases they are not memories of the classroom, but of what I call the ‘awe and wonder’ moments. Those moments when you met somebody who came in to talk to you about a topic that then sparked a lifelong interest. Or a school trip where you were challenged to do something that scared you, and the amazing feeling when you achieved it. We need to make sure that this generation, as they come through one of the most difficult periods in living memory, still have these opportunities. Experiential learning will play an important part in helping children understand and process what they have been through, but it will also give them the important opportunities to have experiences that will help shape their futures.

Secondary schoolchildren dig vegetable beds

Like most people I’ll be glad to see the back of 2020. I understand 2021 will hold its own challenges but I’m excited to see how we face them, and I am proud to lead an organisation that is so creative in overcoming them.

Before then we need to get through what is going to be a strange, if not difficult, festive period. Don’t worry, I’m not going to channel Tiny Tim with a “God bless us, every one!”, but I will say whatever the next few weeks hold, I hope you get to spend lots of it outdoors enjoying all the awe and wonder of winter and that it is filled with peace, love, kindness and most importantly…. cake!

With love,

Carley

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