The kids are alright!
With the summer holiday upon us and the start of our History in the Hols season just over a week away, Mark Rowland reflects on his baptism of fire and the fun he has had since in running family walks.
I qualified for my guiding badges in 2012 (City of London) and 2013 (City of Westminster) and within a matter of weeks of gaining the latter, a friend of my wife’s asked her “Does Mark do walks for kids”. “Yes”, she replied, “I’m sure he’d love to”.
“Thanks”, I said to my wife. “One minor detail; how different should my approach be to guiding kids as distinct from doing an adult walk?” (fortunately as an education trainer and a former deputy head of a primary school she is well qualified to coach me in this respect).
“Easy”, she said. “All you have to do is be interesting, entertaining, absolutely factually correct (I chose to ignore the implicit suggestion that us guides might be anything otherwise!), use age-appropriate words and terminology and don’t talk down to them.
And don’t just talk ‘at’ them either; engage and involve them – through the use of questions, for example – which will also help you gauge their level of knowledge so you don’t lose them through telling them things about which they have no understanding nor interest. But in doing that you have to always maintain control as they will take over if you let them.
Oh, and making sure at least some of your content is curriculum-appropriate would help keep the mums and dads happy”.
What could be simpler…?
And so it came to pass that on a fresh September morning in 2013 I was standing at Tower Hill underground faced with the expectant faces of 21 kids (with accompanying parents, grans, uncles, aunts and friends to get them across the roads safely and cajole and corral them into the right place at the right time) doing my best to look like the person in control (I’m sure a gang of kids that size can smell fear!).
The outcome? It was an absolute blast and remains to this day the most fun I have ever had guiding.
OK, there were a few teething problems on that first walk – chiefly the fact that a two-hour walk ended up taking nearer three and a half after they had finished bombarding me with questions the whole way (don’t worry, if you’re thinking of coming on one of my walks I’ve learned better control!).
Since then I’ve repeated the exercise on numerous occasions for the same group, for other similar groups, for state schools, private schools (and even a baccalaureate school), in The City, in Westminster, during the day, at night – but all with one thing in common; it’s never stopped being enormous fun and hugely rewarding.
The media seems to enjoy putting out a stream of stories about how children these days are obese, dumbed-down couch potatoes surgically attached to gaming consoles, that they possess the attention spans of absent-minded goldfish, have no interest in reading and how they know nothing about our history.
I have to say that my experience with the kids that have come on all of my walks is that couldn’t be further from the truth; perceptive, knowledgeable, engaged and attentive which, over the course of a two-hour walk is quite some achievement on their part.
The questions they ask me and the response I get to some I ask of them are two of the things I really love about doing these walks for kids. By and large in turn searching and knowledgeable, but some (especially from the younger ones) just downright funny.
I’ve been particularly impressed with the knowledge about the Great Plague and surrounding issues among kids in the core age range that tend to come on these walks (9-13 year-olds).
Take that first walk for example: A key area of learning history for children in that age range is an understanding of how we know what we know and who recorded it for us (they ask that question constantly about every subject).
So, to introduce the stop to talk about the Great Plague I reveal the famous portrait of Samuel Pepys, and before the words “do any of you know who this is?” had barely left my mouth, 20-odd kids shouted straight back at me in unison: “Pepys!”
Who’d have thought the great Mr Pepys would end up as a pin-up boy for 21st century schoolkids?
One of the real joys of leading guided walks is when you get asked the difficult questions that show people are really paying attention to what you’re saying. Never more so is this the case than when they come from children.
And this always the stop that draws the really searching questions that slightly stop you in your tracks: “why didn’t the fleas bite the rats?”; “if they believed it was caused by ‘miasma’, exactly how much understanding did they have of the spread of infection through the air?”; “wouldn’t the cats and dogs have caught the plague had they been left alive to kill the rats?”, to name but a few.
Final mention, though, has to be reserved for a boy on that first walk who couldn’t have been more than 6-7 years old. He was first to me at every stop, standing there looking up at me with rapt attention the whole time.
As we got to the Monument to talk about the Great Fire, I asked “who knows what this is?”.
Up shoots his hand. “Yes?” I say, looking down at him.
“The King’s stick” came his reply (you can sort of see what he means, it does look a bit like a sceptre).
Next I asked if anyone knew why Pudding Lane is so-called.
After the usual round of bakery product-related guesses (it’s actually because of the hogs’ stomachs or “puddings” as they were known which were carried down there from the medieval meat market on Eastcheap to be dumped in the river leaving a trail of blood and guts in their wake), up goes his hand again: “From the pudding-shaped cars that are on there”.
But he was saving his best till last. “Anyone know where the Great Fire of London is said to have finished?”, I asked.
A sea of blank faces (for once!). But our hero was on a roll…
Not to be undaunted, up goes his hand: “31 millimetres” he said, with utter courage in his conviction he was right. Quite brilliant.
So, if you happen to be on one of my walks that goes that way, the Monument will henceforth be referred to as “the King’s stick”, Pudding Lane will be so-called because of strange pudding-shaped cars that apparently frequent it and the Great Fire of London will have travelled precisely only 31 millimetres from its point of origin.
Because my little mate said so, and who am I to argue?
Yep, the kids are alright and an absolute joy to guide. Can’t wait for History in the Hols!
Mark will be running his Pomp and Power: Royalty and Rogues in Westminster and Raiding Romans to City Slickers: A History of London For Kids walks as part of our History in the Hols season, dates and booking details here, the full programme is here.