In saying “child is father of the man” Wordsworth was affirming a psychological truth: we know that the environment in which a child is raised has a profound effect on the developing adult, as fundamental habits of thought and behaviour are laid down in the early years.
Working as a clinical psychologist with adults I regularly ask people about their experiences growing up. It is always sad to hear a person talk about a difficult childhood, whether the story is of a subtly undermining or inattentive family environment, or a grossly abusive one. From a bad start, problems often spiral and escalate. Children who are not thriving at home rarely find it easy to form relationships with peers and are often the targets of bullying. Academic focus becomes difficult, and disaffection and disengagement from education can follow. Emotionally vulnerable young people may use drugs or alcohol to try to manage their feelings. They may rush into relationships to escape home or school. With little confidence or sense of self-worth they are vulnerable to further abuse for which they are likely to blame themselves. By the time they arrive in adult mental health services it can be difficult to get things back on track.
In twenty five years of working with adults in the NHS I have often wished that more could be done to help at-risk children to avoid an escalating spiral of disadvantage. It was this idea that made me interested in Jamie’s Farm, and led me to spend a week as volunteer observing the Jamie’s Farm staff working with vulnerable young people.
Arriving before the week’s visitors, I sat in as the team discussed how best to prepare for a group of children supported by a local charity, some coming with their parents and some alone. Careful thought was given to how to organise the group and how it might feel for those children who were not accompanied by a parent. Once the families and young people arrived, the well established programme unfolded. Farm based activities were interspersed with opportunities for reflection. Meals consisted of healthy food, much of it produced on the farm and cooked as part of the shared work of each day. All of this took place in a secluded rural setting so beautiful that at times the effect was almost surreal.
Some children threw themselves into the experience, touchingly willing to try to catch a chicken or ride a pig. Others seemed to have already concluded that there could be no prospect of fun or success and were disengaged or withdrawn to the point of seeming almost unreachable. But the novelty and excitement of the activities offered by a real working farm was seductive. Who could resist the opportunity to turn the lever on a giant silo and watch a stream of pig food rattle into a bucket? Or to ride in a trailer, hell- for-leather, across bumpy fields, behind a quad-bike? These opportunities, backed up by the gentle persistence of the staff, won through at least some of the time with every child. As the week went on, those with a tendency to withdraw did so less, and if they did, the speed and ease with which they reconnected with the group increased. It was deeply moving to see a young man who had initially not wanted even to speak beaming with joy as he wielded a huge real axe and split a huge real log.
But Jamie’s Farm is much more than an activity centre. It is a therapeutic programme in which activity is used to forge reflection and change. Each child is likely to encounter things that they enjoy but also things that they fear. Children, adults, and staff are invited regularly to reflect on how they are feeling and to consider how this links to their experiences during the day. For those of us lucky enough to have grown up in a supportive environment the ability to make sense of our own emotions, and the emotions of others, is a skill we take for granted. Not all children, however, have had a chance to develop such “emotional literacy”. It is often the first task of therapy with adults to foster a better awareness of emotions so it was a pleasure for me to see the children at Jamie’s farm laying the foundations by linking their inner experiences with the outer world.
The week concluded with a “celebration meeting”. Each child’s progress and achievements were carefully attended to and applauded. Even the oldest and most streetwise visitors looked “well chuffed!” For while Jamie’s Farm does not hesitate to challenge its visitors, the skilful and charismatic staff do so in such a way that the odds are always stacked in the child’s favour, allowing them to have the experiences of success that are so crucial to the development of confidence.
Jamie’s Farm left me with an enduring warm glow, and I hope it did the same for every child who shared the experience with me. And secretly, deep inside, I feel a stronger person for having touched the enormous, terrifying, and magnificent Aberdeen Angus bull!
Written by the wonderful Selena Elcombe who volunteered at Jamie’s Farm in July 2017.
For more information about volunteering, or for an application form please contact firstname.lastname@example.org