'A game of conkers not only provides fun and amusement but it also serves an educational and pastoral principle'
Colin Baty, head of Bedales Prep School, Dunhurst, discusses the simple pleasure of playing conkers which gets pupils outside and teaches them about risk-taking.
At Bedales Prep School, Dunhurst, we like to have a monthly ‘craze’. This month it is conkers, and we’re having a conkers competition. As I write, my own carefully selected specimen is steeping in vinegar, and I am expecting a good run.
Why are we doing it? Well, one reason is that it is fun – a simple pleasure that gets the children outside (not that we need an excuse at Dunhurst). It doesn’t require lots of expensive equipment – just a piece of string and something to make a hole in the conker for it go through. Also, unlike social media and console games, it is hard to arrange and play a game of conkers without conversing with one’s opponent face-to-face. These are little things, perhaps, but we overlook them at our peril.
There is another layer to our thinking. When news got out that I had introduced a conker competition at my last school, I quickly had news outlets on the phone to me. “Is there not a risk of a child being hit?”, I was asked. “Yes there is,” I replied, “and a rap on the knuckles from a conker might smart for a little while.” That is a poor reason to not do it, however. The point is that a large part of our responsibility as educators lies in keeping safe the children in our care, but part of this involves encouraging them to learn how to manage risk – what they are comfortable with, when to say no. Then, when they reach their teenage years and are perhaps gripped by the thrill of taking risks (there are neurological reasons for this), they are better prepared. A game of conkers might result in a few bruises and the odd tear, but we think of it in the same way that we might an inoculation jab – the injection might be unpleasant and you might feel a little queasy for a while, but it is better by far than contracting mumps.
And so, we send out children out into the beautiful school grounds to look for fallen horse chestnuts. Sometimes these will have split, making easy the job of picking out the impossibly lustrous fruit. Other times, the children must dig inside the spiky green capsule in order to get at the treasure it contains – not unlike our rationale for encouraging our children to play conkers: dig beneath the fun exterior, and you will find a serious educational and pastoral principle being served. With the statistics on mental health on the rise, we cannot ignore what is causing this. Learning should both be fun and provide the stepping stones to manage life and achieve individual goals.