By Charlie Harrison – Farm School Leader, Nethercott House

For Children’s Mental Health Week 2024 Farm School Leader Charlie reflects on how a week at one of our three farms benefits the mental health of our young beneficiaries, especially within the context of this year’s theme – My Voice Matters.

The coach is coming down the drive through a tree tunnel, Nethercott House peeking out by parts under the branches as it moves closer. For the staff team, a solid safe place; for our visiting children, a series of question marks built on a foundation of uncertainty. We keep this at the front of our minds as they look around wildly before stepping inside, over the threshold. Set into the floor in stone: “Salve” from the Latin, a welcome, from the English, a healing balm. I often wonder how many of them notice the word. I reflect on our built-in entrance mat during this children’s mental health week, with the theme of ‘my voice matters’. Built into the visit is, just as those stone letters form part of the house, the idea that these children are special, curious and important, that this visit could change them and their trajectory. This forms a child-centred learning journey that renders those leaving at the end of their stay invisibly changed from those who had so furtively arrived.

I am not implying that knowing the gestation period of various livestock or getting your wheelbarrow licence will somehow pivot a person, but rather that the experience of being on a farm for a week, working together to care for livestock, tend the garden, harvest and help cook meals, and exploring nature their way, empowers and deeply affects the image each child holds of themselves, of how their voice sounds. They do not need to sit still, spell out words or stay silent. They are asked to share their thoughts and stories. We actively encourage curiosity. They realise they can get muddy. They can be responsible and caring; they can be a community. They can be stewards of the land. They develop resilience even in the short time they are here. Children and their teachers do meaningful work with visible results – cleaning stables, grooming horses and donkeys, digging, weeding, planting and harvesting. They see the difference they make to Nethercott, and they can be proud of their contributions.

Their voice matters from start to finish. During meals, served family style, they choose what goes on their plate. In our nature connection sessions at the Spinney, children are given the opportunity to get bored, acknowledging the discomfort that can bring, and create their own entertainment, find new interests. To be responsible for themselves – we encourage them to listen to their body and mind and speak up as needed for clothing, toilet, and other choices. At the end of sessions, and at many other points of the day we reflect, asking children to share highlights and challenges alike.

At the end of their visit, children are given the opportunity to share their views and feelings about the week, as well as offering time to reflect on their achievements, compare time at the farm to time in their home environment, proud moments and more. We let them know that their feedback matters, that their voice matters.

Charlie (they/them) is a Farm School leader specialising in social, emotional and mental health needs (SEMH). They are passionate about empowering people from diverse backgrounds to connect with themselves, each other, and nature. Their favourite session to run at Nethercott House is the Spinney, where participants can explore nature on their terms, as well as lighting fires, building, creating and crafting.