Sadia Shafquat, Senior School Leader, shares reflections on the school hike last summer and the importance and joy of exploring our local countryside.
With grey clouds dominating the skies for the majority of this autumn term at school, some senior school pupils have been thinking back to the end of the previous summer term as they have been planning potential Autumn-Winter hikes to mirror their end-of-year summer outing. Some pupils have been exploring local routes suitable to the Autumn-Winter term as proposed outings. These discussions with pupils have led to an intention to establish regular termly outings exploring our local terrain, God willing; in sha Allah.
We brought the summer term to a close with our pupils over a memorable day-long hike following a trail of over 10 miles straddling the border of Berkshire and South Oxfordshire in the foothills of the Chiltern Hills. The carefully planned trail, the starting point of which lay at a 20 minute (8 mile) distance from school, took our group through the village of Whitchurch Hill and the hamlets of Collins End and Goring Heath. Pupils traversed through open heathland, dense woodland and meadowland, endured a steep climb up to hills overlooking Mapledurham, enjoying scenic views over Reading and the wider county areas, before heading down to a meeting with the river Thames, and rounding off the invigorating day with an enjoyable ice cream treat (highly recommended!) at the village of Goring-on-Thames.
The summer hike allowed for several purposes to be met and served as an occasion to wonderfully bring together many of our aims for the educational experience of our pupils. We intended for most parts of the hike to be relaxing for pupils as they spent time together with their peers and teachers benefiting from pleasant and refreshing views along the trail. At the same time, we hoped that they would be challenged by some aspects of the trails and build their physical stamina along with their mental strength, resilience and team spirit (leaving no one behind). Pupils' daily school experience is also carefully cultivated to meet many of these aims, but an outing such as this is an opportunity to implement these in a special way:
- Suhbah: Relaxation in Good Company
One of the intentions in curating the physical environment of the school is for our pupils to benefit from the direct (non-virtual) interaction and physical presence of fellow believers from amongst their peers and teachers; to have opportunities to enjoy companionship in ways that are uplifting for the soul and enjoy friendships that rejuvinate and lead to good rather than harm. This is experienced through daily school life. The hike was an opportunity to extend this opportunity further through relaxation in the company of peers and teachers in a different context; walking together, climbing together, eating together, racing together and enjoying good conversation ranging from the light-hearted to the reflective.
Our pupils begin their days at school by recitation of morning duas and adhkaar; daily litanies recited collectively giving pupils the opportunitiy to remember God Most High before anything else; to start the day mindfully and with purpose. The hike, with its early morning start, allowed our group the blessed opportunity to recite morning duas and adhkaar sitting together in a calming and invigorating hillside setting, surrounded by the natural sounds of leaves in the breeze, birds or other hillside creatures, pausing thereafter for moments of silent reflection, remembrance and observation.
Our aim is for pupils to become healthy and strong adults through the natural movement and physical education programme we teach at school, the roots of which lie in the understanding that our bodies have a need for movement which is met through re-learning how to move in the ways that humans are naturally designed to do, and which may be best fulfilled through movement in the natural world rather than in aritifical settings. Pupils at school gradually train in their proficiency in jumping, moving on all fours, balancing, running, climbing, lifting, and so on. The hike provided them opportunities to do so in a range of terrain outdoors. Aside from sustaining their stamina and reviving their energies through the 10 mile+ walk, pupils also had ample occasion, guided by their ever-enthusiastic movement teacher, for practising many natural movement skills through tree-climbing, jumping, running, crawling and inverse-crawling, log-carrying and more!
- Doses of Vitamin N
The day long hike was an opportunity to have several consecutive hours of nature immersion, gaining from the physiological, psychological, emotional and spiritual benefits of immersion in the rich and diverse oxygen-filled lush green of our English countryside. It included spending time in dense woodlands, the specific benefits of which have become fashionable as "forest-bathing”, which takes from the ancient Japanese practice of mindfulness and relaxation. The most recent research endeavours into many mental health conditions indicate that spending time in nature is not a mere bonus but in fact essential to the proper functioning of the human being*. The term “nature-deficit disorder” coined by the writer Richard Louv in his book “Last Child in the Woods”** suggests connections between complex physical, psychological and emotional health problems experienced by young people as well as adults and the divide or severed bond between children and the natural world. The prescription: an intake of “Vitamin N” in regular doses. We are blessed with life in a land of “clouded hills” (William Blake) where easy access to the countryside from our urban areas provides ample opportunities to breathe purer air and benefit from immersion in nature. May we have the tawfiq to continue to enjoy this in our school community.
- Love for the Land
Instilling in our pupils a love for the land in which they are born or living is also an educational aim. We intend for our pupils to travel through and know the local lands well, to be familiar with terrains, names and places and to love the land with a sense of belonging for the sake of the beauty of the Divine creation which is frequently manifest in it. William Blake’s famous 19th century poem cites the sacred nature of the land in the English countryside, revering “England’s mountains green…England’s pleasant pastures…England’s green and pleasant land” as he lamented the corruptive pollution of the “Dark Satanic Mills” on the land which were a product of the Industrial Revolution. Walking our trail in the summer, there was opportunity to appreciate the diversity of the local terrain, from chalk grassland to dense beech woodlands, flower-filled meadow-land to more barren open terrains, steep hills and inclines to low-level flat land, ford crossings and farmland. We hope that in sha Allah more opportunities such as these will help foster a deeper appreciation and love for the land.
- Learning from the Local
The hike day also gave us the opportunity to observe the way people are using land and assets in our wider local community. Part of the walk took our group through Hardwick Estate; an organic, sustainably managed family-run Estate covering 900 acres. Aside from farming, much of the land owned by Hardwick has been used for the creation of valuable businesses whose output or service bring revenue to sustain the Estate whilst at the same time contributing something unique to the community and, importantly, also reflecting crucial values held by the Estate such as ecological living, artisan crafts, sustainable wood produce, and outdoor education such as forest schooling and more. In other words, sustaining their land, preserving assets and bringing in revenue is not simply an occasion to make money just anyhow, rather it serves as an opportunity to share important values and contribute benefically to the community. One of these endeavours includes Tolhurst Organic, one of the longest-running organic vegetable farms in England, which supplies vegetables to Reading and Greater Reading neighbourhoods weekly and which has a small all-hours self-service vegetable shop***. Our group encountered this lovely surprise on our walking trail, and had an opportunity to reflect on the unattended honesty-box system employed. Honesty boxes are small boxes left behind for customers to leave the right payment for what they take from an otherwise unguarded shop. These are not a novel tradition; a refreshing reminder of a now-quaint practice which had been seen in many traditional communities in both Muslim and non-Muslim lands. They depend on the belief that as people of princples and integrity - possibly God-fearing people - we would do the right thing in paying fairly for consumed goods even when 'no one is watching'.
References for Further Exploration
* Spending time in nature is found to be an "an antidote for stress: it can lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels, reduce nervous system arousal, enhance immune system function, increase self-esteem, reduce anxiety, and improve mood. Attention Deficit Disorder and aggression lessen in natural environments, which also help speed the rate of healing." https://e360.yale.edu/features/ecopsychology-how-immersion-in-nature-benefits-your-health
**Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Defecit Disorder, Richard Louv. Atlantic Books (2005)