Everyone knows the importance of educating children about where food comes from and there are already a number of open farms doing just that very well.

But few do so without the aid of animals to draw children’s attention and people may argue some open farms don’t represent “proper” farming.

The Chatham Green project in Essex is different. The outdoor education centre has been set up on part of an 182ha (450-acre) arable farm and features none of the usual array of pets’ corners, pigmy animals or rare breeds.

Instead, it unashamedly focuses on how best to manage the land to meet the demands of modern food production and the environment. It is a crucial message that can be fun and exciting for children of all ages, say those behind the project.

Outdoor learning

The Chatham Green project is a joint initiative between Strutt & Parker Farms and conservation group the Wilderness Foundation, offering “curriculum-based outdoor learning” on a range of topics from biodiversity and renewable energy to food production and farm economics.

It is being funded by Bayer CropScience and Claas, and organisers aim to attract 3,000 primary, secondary and college children, together with groups of teachers, through its doors every year.

“We have focused our activities on the curriculum and what schools want, so it is much more than just a nice day out in the country,” says Charlie Fillingham from S&P Farms, which has provided land and buildings for the education centre.

“We want children and adults to understand the challenges of providing for a world population that’s set to pass nine billion by 2050 at the same time as meeting environmental needs. The aim is to create a balanced debate about the key issues within that, whether it’s GM or renewables.”

Bayer CropScience’s food industry manager Stephen Humphreys says a better educated public will help farmers grow sustainably. “It’s today’s children that will be living with this growing population, so it’s in everyone’s interests to have a more informed debate.

“Environmental issues are increasingly on the agenda, but for farmers to grow as sustainably as possible it has to be done economically as well as environmentally. If farmers aren’t farming efficiently, more land will be needed to produce food, which means less for wildlife.”

The centre will also be used to demonstrate to farmers how environmental stewardship schemes can improve biodiversity. The farm has joined the Higher Level Stewardship scheme and a biodiversity survey has just been conducted across the site.

Surveying will be repeated regularly to monitor changes in type and number of species, with local schools and colleges taking part.

The Wilderness Foundation delivers the education programme for Key Stage 1 to 4 with activities tailored to the age range and ability of different groups, says chief executive Jo Roberts.

“There’s obviously a lot of focus on science and biology, but we can design visits to fit any part of the curriculum or topics the teachers want. For example, one school added in foreign languages to their trip by doing orienteering around the farm in Spanish, while another wanted to hold their music class in the woodland and others are doing poetry and creative writing here.

“Teachers are increasingly interested in the outdoors and want to reconnect with nature. Our aim is to help get the farm embedded into the curriculum of the school and let the children grow with us.”

Tailored trips

Teachers are asked what they want to achieve and Ms Roberts says they can either choose an “off-the-shelf” activity plan, or trips can be tailored to specific requirements. Every session includes a plan with learning outcomes, risk assessments and resource packs to take back to the classroom.

Topics and activities covered include: identifying and surveying pollinators/insects, renewable energy (the site has a 48kW tracking solar array), landscape/species conservation, crops and nature, farming economics (yields, value of crops, etc.), heritage, woodlands, and water resources.

The typical cost is £4-6 per child per visit, but schools are also being given the option to take out an annual membership for a tiered fee, allowing unlimited visits throughout the year. Mr Fillingham says there may be scope to help more disadvantaged schools meet some of the cost, subject to funding. “If we can get the schools out here, that’s great, but through our website we also hope to deliver a lot of extra learning material,” he adds.

Several hundred children from both state and private schools have already visited the centre, taking part in a number of activities (see panel) that included planting 12,000 trees as part of the Diamond Jubilee Woodland scheme.

Nearby Felsted Preparatory school is one of those that has signed up to annual membership and teacher Jeremy Fincher expects all 465 children will visit at least twice a year.

“As a private school we aren’t as bound by the national curriculum, so we have a lot more flexibility over how we can use the farm. For us the Chatham Green Project fits very well with our ESR (Education for Social Responsibility) programme, which is relatively new and something we’re trying to integrate across the school.

“A lot of people think you need animals to make a farm interesting, but we like the fact this doesn’t try to do that and is a real working farm.

“We’d like to bring children back regularly, so they can see how crops and nature change with the seasons. Our leadership team came in August and all subject teachers have been asked to look at how they can build the farm into their teaching.”

Felsted School has set up a “Green Team” that includes representatives from across the school to discuss and take part in environmental activities. The team visited Chatham Green in March to plant trees and try other activities.

Jenny Davies, head teacher at Westborough School in Westcliff-on-Sea is also passionate about improving children’s knowledge of food and the countryside and hopes all 615 pupils (age 3-11) will get chance to visit the project over the year.

“At the end of the day, how can you call it a national curriculum when children don’t know where their food comes from?”

Westborough School is a land-locked site with no green playing fields, which means many children rarely experience the countryside, she says. “It really brought it home to us after a trip to Hadleigh Castle when one child asked what a blackbird was.

“We teach basic rural environmental science and do as much as we can in school, but we are still limited. I’m a great believer that you can’t teach something unless you’ve experienced it, got a real feel for the subject and can enthuse people about it; which is what this project does.”

The initial focus is on local schools, but Chatham Green’s proximity to London and good transport links means its reach could be extended much wider – it is 15 minutes from 115,000 people. Some fine tuning of activities and facilities is still needed, especially as the site becomes more popular.

“We’re bound to get a lot of schools wanting to come between April and July, so we’re building a bank of qualified seasonal staff to call on at those times,” notes Ms Roberts. “But we also want to encourage people to visit the farm in all seasons, come rain or shine.”

The project is already working with disabled children and a Youth at Risk programme and she believes this can be developed further. This is alongside other specific training for which the centre is a certified provider, such as Leave no Trace ethics (best practice in the countryside) and the John Muir Award (environmental award).

Awareness-raising events are being considered around key times (e.g. Christmas/Easter/harvest festival) and organisers will continue to approach schools directly via mailshots and phone calls.

Interactive website

The website will also be developed to reach a wider audience and provide interactive learning through podcasts, videos and pictures. It will help those who cannot visit the farm on a regular basis to follow progress, Mr Fillingham says.

Cost and margin information about crops grown on the farm could also be published on the website to give people a better idea of farm economics and visitors may be lent digital cameras to record their own visits.