The Benefits Of Rhythm To Students Working On A Biodynamic Holding
(1.1) Rhythm and routine are very important to the life of human beings. The college offers an environment that is based on rhythm, this is very nurturing to our students that may have experienced trauma and chaos in their development. On the biodynamic holding, we are subjected to the rhythms of nature, that penetrate every aspect of the garden. We also have routines that must be carried out.
In my sessions, I have a student that can be very difficult to engage. As soon as I say that the chickens haven’t had their breakfast, or don’t have enough food for the weekend, then they will get up and go and feed the chickens. They know that this routine must be carried out otherwise the chickens might be hungry.
Another routine that occurs daily is collecting the food waste from the canteen and the cafe. This is then emptied into the composters, with 1/4 the volume of wood pellets. We have to incorporate this activity into our sessions and our daily routine. The food waste provides the bulk of the fertility to our vegetable beds. If we allowed the food waste to amount without being emptied it would rot and make an awful stench inviting rats and other pests. By emptying one or two buckets worth of food waste five days a week, we are able to manage all of this material.
The activities that take in the garden are subject to the seasons and the rhythm of the weather. This provides us with a variety of different tasks across a year. A vegetable will need its bed prepared in Winter. Before it’s the seed is sowed in Spring. It is watered and cared for throughout Summer. And is finally being harvested in Autumn.
In biodynamics, we follow the rhythms of the moon to indicate the most favourable planting times. We find it important to observe the rhythm of nature, such as the first snowdrops appearing, or the first signs of wild garlic shoots growing in the woodlands, or the first sightings of the swans on the mill pond. It’s important to observe these changes in the landscape and discuss them with students so they can sense themselves being held by this rhythm and place.
I have also found that rhythm needs to be understood and utilised by our body when carrying out tasks. For example, digging over a bed becomes less strenuous when we incorporate a more rhythmic continuous motion with the space, unitizing momentum.
We have breaks during sessions (at varying intervals for different students), which are routines, that enable students to continue with their rhythms, and maybe manage any anxieties or simply refresh.
(1.2) We have our own biological rhythms that influence our behaviours on a fundamental level. Hormones are secretions providing chemical signalers for many of our body’s processes, there are 50 known hormones that affect our growth, metabolism, hunger, emotional state, and many other aspects that make us who we are.
Sleep is crucial to our health and well-being. Many students at college have difficulty managing their sleep cycle, and it can become very dysregulated: for example, staying up late into the morning, and sleeping during the daytime. When sleeping during the day, it is likely that you move your eating period to the night-time, during which your body finds it more difficult to break down sugars in foods, which can lead to obesity and diabetes. A student that has poor sleep, will often become fatigued in sessions, and their learning will be impacted.
The processes that take place within our body influence us greatly, and if we are able we have to make changes to try and bring our biology into balance. A person with additional needs may be impacted by biological dysregulation more acutely, which may create barriers to engagement with activities.
Our circadian rhythm is a key determining factor of our behaviour, hormone levels, sleep, body temperature and metabolism. The diagram below indicates some of the ways we are affected by the circadian rhythm.
The work was done with Inkscape by YassineMrabet. Informations were provided from “The Body Clock Guide to Better Health” by Michael Smolensky and Lynne Lamberg; Henry Holt and Company, Publishers (2000). Landscape was sampled from Open Clip Art Library (Ryan, Public domain). Vitruvian Man and the clock were sampled from Image:P human body.svg (GNU licence) and Image:Nuvola apps clock.png, respectively.
(1.3) Let’s compare some human biological rhythms with those of nature! Human beings breathe in air so we can provide our organs and tissues with oxygen and keep on living, and also so we can breathe our carbon dioxide. The earth is also breathing. Plants and microbes in the soil take up carbon dioxide and provide oxygen.
The passage of the earth around the sun gives us day and night. We sleep during the night and wake when the sun rises. In winter months, I sleep between 8-9 hours, but as the days get longer by spring I sleep between 7-8 hours and often wake with the sunrise.
During winter our bodies spend more energy keeping us warm, this is one reason why we tend to eat more in winter, and eat lighter meals during the peak of summer. The change in temperature through the seasons affects our appetite.
(1.4) We need rhythm and routine in our lives, otherwise, we will exert a lot of energy adapting to new circumstances. Simply waking up at the same time every morning, is one way of regulating our biology.
“Almost each and every one of our cells contains one of these clocks, and each is programmed to turn on or off thousands of genes at different times of the day or night…. When these daily rhythms are disturbed for as little as a day or two, our clocks cannot send out the right messages to these genes, and our body and mind will not function as well as we need.”
“A disrupted clock is the mother of all maladies, and, conversely, in most chronic diseases, clock function is compromised.” – Dr. Satchin Panda
On the biodynamic farm, everyone is subject to the rhythms of the season, and the day. There is a start time for when the session begins, and a time when it ends. There is usually and break halfway through the session, and more frequent breaks depending on the student. There is an expectation that the student will work within a purpose-led biodynamic farm, and partake in activities that involve movement, coordination, contact with micro-organisms, social interactions with people, and care of plants and animals, all of which have a regulating effect on the body.
(1.5) In the valley garden where I work, there is a great variety of tasks available to the students. Students come into the session with varying needs and abilities. Sometimes, a student makes great progress by attending the session for the first time. The act of sitting in the garden can be the initial rhythmic experience that the student needs before they are ready to engage, the sunlight, the ducks, and the air are some of the rhythms that penetrate through the valley. With time, these rhythms work themselves upon students and staff.
Turning the compost is one of my favourite activities in the garden, when I have a new student in the valley I like to turn a compost pile with them, it’s a useful way to discern their ability, and rhythm. Turning a compost pile is fairly simple, with a fork you need to lift up the decaying material from the pile and add it to a new compost pile which is being made nearby. Rhythmically, you will be able more a larger quantity of matter without becoming tired. Your breathing is regulated with each fork full of matter.
Wheelbarrowing is a common activity in the valley this requires a certain amount of focus from the student, they need to use two hands and lift the handles to move all of the weight onto the front wheel. They will also need to calculate the weight distribution of the contents of the wheelbarrow and compensate accordingly to maintain a balance. While doing this, they have to walk forwards, their inherent posture may be improved as they position themselves to manoeuvre the wheelbarrow with greater ease. The improvement in posture must have a regulatory response on the body.
Providing A Nourishing Environment
(2.1) A nourishing environment is fundamental in order to grow and develop. Let me explain this by changing the word nourishment for the word information. If we adopt a breathing exercise or a partaking in an activity that regulates breathing then we are nourishing our body and mind. We are informing our body that everything is okay, we are breathing strongly, and this information penetrates deep into our body. Imagine food as information entering the body, when we eat a biodynamic carrot we are giving the body information that is clear, the information hasn’t been corrupted or miscommunicated through the use of chemicals such as fertilizers.
Through positive social interactions, we give the information to our bodies that we have a tribe, and therefore our basic needs will be more secure, as our biology knows deep down that we need others to survive and thrive. The body will stress more if the information that it is being given indicates that there is a lack of strong social bonds, this could lead to disease within the body.
Good information for the body or nourishment is a continuous requirement for a healthy fulfilling life. If we are constantly undernourished or sending our body bad information through bad habits then we won’t have the foundation that we need in order to build a life where we can thrive.
A nourishing environment is very important to the well-being of our students (and everyone). The valley has been carefully designed in harmony with the pre-existing landscape of a mill pond, and steep banks. It provides a nourishing walk for students, staff, and members of the public. There are flow forms, that are calming, as well as an abundance of nature throughout.
Nourishment is about providing what we need so we can grow in health. The students at Ruskin Mill are here to learn practical skills and to help heal trauma through a therapeutic education. To facilitate this the environment in which students have to be nourishing. This includes the landscape, the people, the food, and the activities on the biodynamic holding that provide meaning.
(2.2) A day working with others on a biodynamic farm and eating a biodynamic meal will send our bodies a whole series of good information, realising beneficial chemicals and psychological responses. Caring for animals or plants or something beyond ourselves will give us confidence and self-esteem, which again floods our bodies with good information. When we are involved in purposeful activities, which are found on a biodynamic farm, then we nourish ourselves through nourishing others.
Working on a biodynamic farm or holding involves movement/exercise, teamwork/communication, being outside/fresh air, an unsterilized environment/helpful microorganisms, biodynamic produce/vital nutrition, purposeful work/self-esteem, and daily rhythms/self-regulation.
Building Healthy Relationships
(3.1) The life process of warmth is an important quality for building relationships with students. In most circumstances, it demonstrates an understanding or a caring quality for the other. It is a quality that is associated with welcoming. Many of the students have had negative experiences in the past, and warmth is a way of helping them enter into a new environment or setting where they will in time feel safe, which will allow them to develop, re-step, gain confidence, gain practical skills, and access the curriculum.
One of the initial gestures available when meeting a new student for the first time is to ask them if they would like a cup of tea or squash, and how they like their drink to be. It makes them feel welcome in the session and allows them to relax.
(3.2) Positive role modelling in our interactions with others, in our work ethic, timekeeping, in our habits, body language, and our outlooks is very important for students. This includes me, every member of staff and even some of the students.
We should respond to the day positively, with the goal of making a difference in someone’s life, to the aesthetic of the garden, to nature or to ourselves. Enthusiasm is infectious.
It’s important to engage all members of staff in the session, as this helps motivate all of the students. If a member of staff instead sits out deciding to scroll through their phone, then it gives the student, the wrong idea of what is acceptable, and this behaviour could be mirrored by the student and will create an obstruction to them fully engaging in a PSTE. Engaging staff in a task therefore can be as important as engaging student a student in a task. If a student is working independently during the sessions, their support worker should still be engaged in a task somewhere in the garden.
Role modelling can also be useful in motivating staff to understand what is expected. It is important to instil a culture where staff also feel engaged in the landscape, alongside the students. If staff are role modelling then it will motivate all the other members of staff. Many support staff are with the same student each week, so they also become familiar with and invested in the workshop.
(3.3) Trust is important for all relationships. It’s important to trust yourself, as you need to have faith in yourself or confidence in order to carry out tasks to the best of your ability. You also need to be trustworthy, this allows you to bare responsibility, and responsibilities are very important for our well-being. Within a team you need to have a level of trust, in order to work together, otherwise, you will only be working against each other, and the students and the land will suffer.
During the sessions, students are given the equipment they need to fulfil a task, and there is an element of trust attached to this. We have to have faith that in the tools we use, to know that they will fulfil their purpose. Its really important that we have well made and well maintained tools. Before Christmas, I went and collected some refurbished tools from a social enterprise called Hope Tools in Northampton. These tools are quality, and help us carry out our tasks.
(3.4) Maintaining professional boundaries is fundamental in all professions. In an education setting, we are also constantly role-modelling students. It’s important to be warm and friendly but not to be perceived as a friend, we are staff and this distinction has to be made distinct. Many students have attachment issues and will become attached or obsessive about members of staff. It is important to remain professional at all times.
Professional boundaries are needed in a community such as Ruskin Mill College. There is an organizational structure that helps provide a degree of order to the working of the college, so it can provide an education to its students. Professional boundaries have to be respected. It’s important for me to keep my personal life and my professional life separated where possible, this can be difficult once we develop friendships with our colleagues, but a boundary must be maintained at work. Or unconscious bias may impact our professional judgements.
The Impact Of Culture On Students
(4.1) Environment influences behaviour. When we walk by a neglected piece of land, one with broken glass on the ground, graffiti, and large metal fences, our blood pressure will increase. When we walk through the park on a break from a busy office then it’s likely our blood pressure will decrease. Furthermore, the culture we grew up in, the culture we now live in, and all of our past and present experiences will affect our behaviour. Traumatic experiences from our past can continue to haunt us throughout our lives.
I recall reading the best example of how the environment influences behaviour in a book called Palaces For The People (How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, And The Decline Of Civic Life by Eric Klinenberg. In the book, the author describes how abandoned areas of land in the city caused blood pressure spikes, and how the neighbourhood reclaimed these abandoned areas and turned them into gardens. I no longer have the book, but I have found an article online that references my point from the book.
“Attention to social infrastructure can prevent violent crime. Employing community residents to fix up abandoned properties and create pocket parks and community gardens out of overgrown vacant lots in high-crime neighbourhoods in Philadelphia, Charles Branas produced a 39% reduction in gun violence and substantial net benefits to taxpayers. “
Traumatic experiences can become ‘imprinted’ in our memory, and when triggered we can be forced to re-live that experience. In some cases, traumatic experiences may even inhibit our development or areas of our development.
The cultures that we grew up in will also imprint themselves on us, and we may not be able to understand what cultures are beneficial or negative to our well-being. Perhaps we can be in a position to re-evaluate our culture and beliefs from a new critical perspective, as we continue to have more experiences, and build a more complete perception of the workings of the world. But perhaps, the cultural programming that we have been subjected to from childhood, denies us the opportunity for self-reflection or contemplation outside of our socialised culture.
Lived experiences in the past may give us a predisposition to other experiences in later life. If for example, I had a traumatic memory of almost drowning, then my behaviour or ability to regulate myself when unexpectedly visiting a swimming pool might be diminished, and the memory will come to the forefront of my mind.
People on the autistic spectrum also experience the world in completely different ways. They may not have the ability to filter past experiences from present experiences and may actually be re-living it as a psychologically real experience.
I worked residentially with a young person that would react negatively when they heard or saw the police. They became excited and almost went into flight or fight response, even though they weren’t directly involved with the police on this occasion. The police sirens and light reminded them of traumatic past experiences, which directly influenced their behaviour in the present moment.
(4.2) The biodynamic farm is a self-contained organism. Biodynamic farming has a beneficial impact on the land, it creates healthy soils, biodiversity, and nutritious food, and supports wildlife. Biodynamics is one of the core aspects of Ruskin Mill. Having a full-functioning biodynamic farm, and market gardens create a purpose-driven environment where students can build practical skills, gain confidence, and have a therapeutic education.
A biodynamic holding is a proactive response to the state of the world, and evolving issues that are moving to the forefront. It puts belief back into the soil, as a way of navigating through the crisis approaching.
Gardening and farming also bring people together from different backgrounds, towards a common ideal. At Ruskin Mill there is a seed-to-table initiative, what is grown on the land is fed back to students, staff and the general public.
The community are brought together at the cafe to eat food that has been grown on-site. The biodynamic nature of the valley can be an inspiration to the community, and inspire others to make their own compost piles, grow their own food, and follow the rhythms of nature. People are brought together to stir and apply the biodynamic preparations, at these times the community is working together to consciously help invigorate the soil and the garden.
Maintaining A Positive Culture
(5.1) Planning sessions in advance is important to create a consistent structure for the students. The morning sessions in valley landscape start with a cup of tea, it creates an environment where students and staff can chat with each other. It also allows tutors to gauge if the job in mind is right for the student on the day or if another job will be more suitable, depending on the weather, the student’s mood, clothing etc. The task is then written on the whiteboard, and then we begin the work. We will always have a tea break at 10:45 am, or 11 am for 15-25 minutes. This is an important part of the day where students can socialise altogether. Then at 12:30 pm, we stop to put away the tools and reflect on the day before heading to lunch. This routine is crucial for most students. The routine creates a foundation from which they can try new things, and learn new skills, but it has to be within the framework and predictability expected. Timetable changes are particularly difficult for many students.
(5.2) Certain tasks in the valley will help develop different characteristics for the students. Students that initially find it hard to engage will often be persuaded to feed the chickens, after this, they are more receptive to other types of jobs.
Some students will build up to collecting and delivering eggs to the cafe independently, which requires social skills, confidence, communication, and will.
Tasks that have a clear end in sight are helpful for those needed to improve tenacity or determination, for example: if you have 20 kale plants to transplant, then it becomes a clear goal, or if there is one pile of compost to turn.
(5.3) Aesthetically and practically it’s important for the workspaces to be tidy, and functional. I have spent a lot of time, clearing away rubbish or clutter from the site and the workspaces. An environment that is disorganised is much more difficult to focus in, especially for our students. As the space is decluttered everything becomes more simple, and it allows us to focus on the tasks at hand and keep up with the demands of the garden.
(5.4) The slogan of Ruskin Mill Trust is ‘reimagining potential’. I have noticed positive changes in students from when I started the biodynamic apprenticeship, and am constantly surprised by the abilities and talents of the students. I have high aspirations for all of the students at Ruskin Mill because I know that the environment and curriculum has be crafted to help them transform. As a tutor, we want the students to achieve their potential, and do what we can during our sessions to help them achieve.
(5.5) As human beings we have to learn from the mistakes we make. We need to experience the consequences of our positive and negative actions, so we can re-approach the world and do better each time. When occurrences and negative actions take place in the student’s life, it’s important that staff take the necessary steps to de-escalate the situation. Afterwards, once the student has calmed down then you can ask what caused them to act in this way, and present some of the different ways the student could have handled it better. Strategies can be put in place.
Building new stories may be a beneficial way to deal with past traumas. A student may think ‘I can create beautiful willow baskets’ or ‘I can drive a tractor, and I want to be a farmer’ instead of returning back to past traumas which have been hard-wired in our brains and continue to overwrite our responses to the environment. In our work, we can help build these new stories for the students, and they learn practical skills and have meaningful work.
Last week, I was working with a student that arrived at the session very tense. The tutor from the previous session pre-warned me that was triggered by loud unpredictable students. His fists were clenched and he was struggling to control his body movements, and he also finds it difficult to express his emotions verbally. We had some posts that needed ramming in the valley to build a new electric fence to keep out rabbits. We took a side for each of the post rammers and counted together ramming three times, before a quick break, and then we would ram another three times. He was smiling and seemed to really enjoy this task. We did this for 12 new posts and probably gave each post 9 rams to get it to the depth we needed. This simple task seemed to allow him to take the stress he was feeling out of his body, and it helped him to stay regulated throughout the session.
(5.6) Being confident involves taking positive risks with our actions, I work with staff to encourage students to step outside their comfort zone, as this is where the challenges and growth are. In the baking room, I know that some students make really tasty cakes, but the real challenge for some of them is then to take what they have made and walk around the valley, to share it with other workshops. It pushes them out of their comfort zone, but their confidence increases slightly each time they do it. There are many ways available to staff to promote positive risk-taking in the workshops, one way is to give students responsibility for a particular job.
In the valley, I have promoted positive risk-taking on many occasions, as it is the point at which many students will have to take a leap to make their own decisions. One student was about to decide what colours the new chicken house would be painted and then painted it. It looked really good when it was finished.
In the summer the lawns need cutting often, which makes for a great student job. After initially taking the through all the safety procedures and controls, I will walk alongside them, so I can turn it off if necessary, and make sure that they are using it safely. Once the student is familiar with the lawn mower, then I am able to give them more independence and step back. Ill give them guidance, but its up to them to cut the grass.
The Importance Of Recreation
(6.1, 6.2 & 6.3)
The definition of recreation is an activity that is done for enjoyment, and not considered work. From an early age, we play. It’s how we come into contact with and make sense of our environment. Recreational activities are enjoyable and offer us a break from what is considered real work. Combining recreational tasks with main duties for the day can really help students engage more proactively. Often important tasks can be subtly changed into a form of play.
Recreational activities are moments of enjoyment that are aside from the work that students partake in during the college day. Tea breaks are a good recreational activity, they can enjoy sitting together with others and having something to eat and drink. It’s fundamental to break up the work with a tea break, students can relax and take a break from work. It might be a time when they can speak to staff to discuss what they like and don’t like with the tasks, maybe there is another project that they would be keen to work on after break that they suggest. It’s a good opportunity to practice social skills with other students and staff.
During an open day at Ruskin Mill College, for new students and their parents, we in the valley were offering apple pressing. One of the students was looking very shy and wasn’t interested in engaging. Until, we turned the act of putting apples into a juicer, and turned it into play. We gave the student an apple and started throwing the apple in from three meters away, instead of just dropping them in. His face lit up, and he eagerly started to throw the apple in, we stood behind the press catching any apples that missed the target. This activity made him appear more confident among his new peers and allowed him to step up and take agency for himself. His mum later came to thank us and said that this activity changed his whole day.
Recreational activities really help to build rapport with new students and help them become comfortable in their environment.
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