Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Helping young people locate themselves The other day I had the chance to tag along with what might have looked like just a bunch of loosely-supervised youngsters wandering about in the countryside. It happened to be one of the most impressive social inclusion projects I've ever seen. On this particular day they were geocaching near the River Yare and finding out how the woodlands are managed, how the river is used, how lanes have changed over centuries, and so on. There were half a dozen young people in care, aged between about 13 and 19 - at least one of them in a residential home, the others having varied histories with foster carers. Through the youth council and the museums service they were involved in a week-long programme of events exploring how the Norfolk countryside has changed as a consequence or cause of social change. The project began last Monday with the participants viewing a series of dioramas at Norwich Museum, which represent recognisable Norfolk scenes. None of the dioramas features any human beings. One of them shows the wildlife on the marshland around the coast at Blakeney, a village which has grown around a number of cottages built from the local flint. Visiting Blakeney themselves, the young people spent time reflecting on the kinds of people who would have lived there in the past, their livelihoods based on fishing; and on the kinds of people who live there now (the house prices are an indicator of the now-classic scenario in which less-affluent local people who have looked after their local environment for centuries are abruptly priced out of their area). I understand that there is little or no fishing based in Blakeney now, but there is a tourist industry based on seal-watching from nearby Blakeney Point. There are insights here about human involvement in the changing environment, which were readily absorbed and discussed by the young participants through the week. Another of the dioramas features a 'loke', which is a regional term for a country lane enclosed on both sides by vegetation. Lokes would have been used heavily over the centuries, often marking parish boundaries, and might well have sunk gradually below the level of adjacent fields. While I was there on Thursday, two or three geocaches were traced in lokes, and I was struck by the young people's appetite for knowledge about wildlife and landscape even while a series of treasure-hunting games was being played. When I was their age, me and my mates would have been relentless in our determination to disrupt the entire process, and I for one would have learned nothing. All the same, I found the ease with which they mastered global positioning technology too much of a contrast with the difficulties these young people have faced and will continue to face in locating themselves. Unlike their settled peers, they are ceaselessly navigating through many uncertainties. The subtle excellence of this project is worth dwelling on, at the start of national adoption week. They're still too rare, but you...

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