Social inclusion: Down on the farm
'City farms provide a unique learning environment for urban young people to develop practical skills. Tim Burke mucks in to see what the fuss is about.
The boy can't be more than 12 years old. He looks a bit shy, but then he sees me cautiously eyeing up a goat. "Would you like to feed it?" he says encouragingly. "Here's some food - don't worry, just put your hand out like this. That's right - can you feel his tongue?"
That's the kind of magic that happens on a city farm. They offer access not just to cute fluffy animals but to a safe and dynamic learning environment that can be mightily effective in developing young people's self-confidence and social and communication skills.
The above encounter took place at Gorse Hill City Farm in Leicester, one of 48 city farms in the UK. Along with hundreds of smaller community gardens, they employ the equivalent of about 500 full-time staff and have about 15,000 volunteers.
Sarah Crookall, education officer at Gorse Hill, stresses that all kinds of young people are keen to volunteer at the farm but agrees there can be a remarkable impact on some of the more hard-to-reach young people.
"Animals bring out the best in people and the kids naturally want to help them," she explains. "We find that young people who show no emotion for anyone else want to care for animals, and in the long run they can transfer some of that back into the rest of their lives." She adds: "It helps them socially and at school. I've seen kids who have never done homework or writing at all and after a week here have gone in with an essay about what they did."
Leicester's Gorse Hill City Farm is located near to disadvantaged areas such as Beaumont Leys, where unemployment, lone-parent families and poverty are all 50 per cent higher than the city average. The farm very much fits the bill of a safe haven. It offers local people plots in the community garden and access to a range of animals including dexter cows, rabbits and guinea pigs, ornamental fowl including cochins and silkies and a selection of rare-breed pigs, sheep and cattle for a breeding programme.'