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TOO OLD FOR COLOURING IN

06-11-2006

Lynn Hawthorne on the growing trendfor turning some of the West Midlands best loved heritage sites in a sort of ye old worlde Disneylande for the kids. Er, wot about us, she muses?

Last weekend, my husband and I visited a beautiful National Trust property in our region ona glorious Autumn day. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, the trees were burnished, the air was sweet and…. punctuated with the screams of young children on a treasure hunt. Aah, not such a quiet Sunday, then…

The property, which closes at the end of September, was open especially for what was billed as ‘Hallowe'en Activities and Autumn Garden Opening.' What actually transpired was that the grounds were open for kids to run round shouting at the tops of their voices: “I've found number seven!” echoing across the lake and the adults-without-children to be sidelined.

The shop, where one might reasonably purchase charity Christmas cards at this time of year, was closed because the room was taken over by children's activities. The Grey Panthers, with their life-long memberships and encyclopaedic knowledge of Latin plant names, were muttering about it being ‘ruddy half-term' and sitting as far away from families in the restaurant as they could.

This wasn't the first time I had encountered this hostile atmosphere and set me to thinking about whether or not this ‘child-centred' approach to heritage is in danger of putting the rest of us out of focus. Don't worry, I can hear the howls of protest already, but read on….

I am in my mid-forties and childless, for a variety of reasons, which are, quite frankly, none of your business, but let's just say that it wasn't entirely through choice. As a teacher, I spend 40 weeks of the year labouring over the academic and social progress of other people's little darlings, so I don't necessarily wish to spend every school holiday surrounded by them.

I am a keen member of The National Trust and English Heritage and frequently visit art galleries and museums, but have noticed this growing trend towards ‘family' activities. When I have enquired about the whereabouts of adult activities, I have received blank looks and the statement: “But it's the school holidays, madam.” Well, obviously, I know that, but does that mean that anything aimed at adults is suspended for the duration?

So let's examine these children's ‘activities.' From what I've seen, they seem to largely consist of colouring in, which children enjoy doing, but, beyond the earliest years of hand and eye co-ordination, have very little educational value. It's a time-filler.

The treasure hunts seem to involve merely ticking off each laminated photocopied image slung from a tree, with no clue-solving to develop logic or historical knowledge and no map-reading skills to develop orienteering and geographical understanding. There's no botanical learning either, as the poor old tree never gets a mention!

I know of one historical property in local government ownership where the Education Officer has no background of education or working with children at all and it shows in the range of activities on offer. The concept of ‘lifelong learning' seems to grind to a halt at the age of 12 in these situations. Is it because of issues around funding or is it that activities for adults and young people require rather more thought and planning than simply photocopying a worksheet? So what exactly is the point of these children's ‘activities'?

One of the arguments often put forward is that children are the guardians of the future. That concept I am more than happy to encourage and have endeavoured to do so throughout my teaching career. But the vast majority of activities I have witnessed seemed firmly aimed at very young children. These are not the next generation of members of heritage associations and won't remember where they coloured in.

Surely it is today's teenagers who should be the principle target audience? They are the next group of the population who will be choosing university courses, looking for jobs and establishing careers, finding voluntary work to fill gap years and becoming parents. Alternatively, and sadly, they are also the next generation of offenders and participants in the criminal justice system who may justifiably feel that heritage, conservation and culture are nothing to do with them.

The only preservation that they're interested in is that of the self. I've seen very few activities aimed at them at these institutions. The bulk of youth opportunities only seem to be offered when it is almost too late and the mountain of engagement is harder to climb: witness Channel 4's recent Ballet Changed My Life: Bally Hoo!

The brief discussions I've had with decision-makers always result in the same response. “We do put on events for adults.” True, but they're usually fee-paying and often during the working day, so only the retired or the ‘housewife' can attend. I saw a notice in a doctor's surgery the other day for an Expert Patient course to help you manage your illness or complaint. It was 10.30 to 12.30, including lunch. Our local police station holds public liaison meetings so members of the public can bring matters that concern to their attention. The meetings last for two hours and also start at 10.30am. So what about those of us who work? Aren't we entitled to participate in life in the community?

When it comes to heritage properties, whydoes the inclusion of children have to be to the exclusion of everyone else? We adults pay the membership fees and are entitled to equal access, surely? Yes, yes, yes encourage children to appreciate nature and history and art and encourage them to respect it, but it must be alongside adults, not instead of.

It's lovely to see children excited and fascinated about learning, but it must be of good quality and mindful of other visitors. So please, heritage consultants and education officers countrywide, when you're planning your next schedule of events, consider the rest of the population and pencil in some events for us…at weekends and evenings, when we're not at work, of course.


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