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What’s Your Desert Island?

Desert Island
Desert Island


You’re no doubt familiar with the whole ‘desert island’ concept. Some people love the idea of being alone on a desert island – others find the idea abhorrent.

When were you last really ‘alone’? No person to keep you company. No technology to keep you company. No pets. No connections.

That’s a pretty difficult place to find in the 21st century!

Now consider the deeper and more emotive concept of loneliness: when did you last feel lonely? Last month? Last week? Yesterday? Today…?

According to a BBC Poll, conducted in 2013, almost half of all adults in England say they experience feelings of loneliness – and London, a densely-populated city of 8 million people is said to be the loneliest place in the country. More worryingly, one in five people say they are more lonely now than they were 10 years ago.

According to Age UK, around one million older people regularly go an entire month without speaking to anyone.

In October of 2013, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, described it as a “national shame” that as many as 800,000 people in England are “chronically lonely”.

Esther Rantzen is quoted in a Telegraph article in early 2014 as saying that children were now also facing an “epidemic of loneliness”.

Opting for a desert island existence is one thing; having no choice is quite another.

In my experience as a teacher and head teacher, I came across many lonely children. However, what troubles me more than the fact that we have lonely children in our schools is that many of them remain lonely. We either do not recognise their loneliness or we do not have the wherewithal to deal with it.

Lonely children are not necessarily poorly behaved; often, they are the quiet ones that sit under the radar, not causing a problem. The ones we are inclined to give our attention to are the ones clamouring for attention – causing a nuisance, making others feel small, disturbing normality. But, hey, aren’t they lonely, too?

Do we have a system for recognising and assisting lonely children in our schools? And not just children? Adults who work within the school and parents who bring their children to our school?

However, so many people would rather choose to sit on their ‘desert island’ than admit to being lonely. Have we made loneliness a stigma – even given the national statistics quoted above? Are we enforcing a desert island existence on to our lonely citizens because we perceive bigger problems under our noses?

Perhaps we need to start mapping our lonely people and creating spaces for them to develop the confidence to a) admit their loneliness and b) form relationships that bring them out of loneliness.

Consider the lonely children in your setting. What little thing can you do – what gesture can you make – to show the child that he or she is noticed – that his or her loneliness is recognised?

And, next time you find yourself feeling that you’re on a desert island that is not of your own choice, don’t blame yourself: find a soulmate to confide in and talk to them about it.

Don’t become a national statistic.


Garden painting
Garden painting

Garden – artist unknown

My dad inspires me.

He has the knack of making a garden come alive and look like a place you want to be in. Even as an octogenarian, he spends hours outdoors tending to nature. And that’s not just in his own garden – he’s often to be found in other people’s gardens as well.

My favourite place in his Cornish garden is the raised patio: it is crazy-paved with a decent-sized pond populated with fish, lilies, frogs (in season) and duckweed. Irregular steps lead down to the lawn and alpines fill the crevices amongst the rockery that borders the patio. Elsewhere in the garden, fruit bushes and ornamental shrubs and  trees adorn the borders.

My dad’s garden thrives.

The same cannot be said about every garden – or, for that matter, every human being.



Having worked in the education sector for a couple of decades, I have come across countless children who are living a life in which they are barely surviving, let alone thriving. Unfortunately, statistics seem to indicate that large numbers of teachers are also just surviving.

A recent and perhaps deliberately provocative article in The Guardian highlighted a report by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) and highlighted the plight of the ‘ghost child’ – ‘the institutionalised infant.., wandering from playground to desk to after-school club without real purpose, nodding off through boredom and fatigue.’ It adds, ‘the ghost child is increasingly likely to be taught by the ghost adult – a teacher grey with fatigue and stress, stuck at school for 10 hours or more a day, wandering from duty to duty in playground, classroom or after-school club.’

Why have we come to this?



Returning to the plants in my dad’s garden, they thrive on sunshine, air and water, which Cornwall has in reasonably generous amounts, especially the latter. All of these are externally provided – drawn from natural resources. What does this look like in the life of a human being? Consider this:

a) Roots draw water up from the ground in which a plant is anchored in and deliver it to the rest of the plant. As human beings, we need  a source of continual refreshment that ‘hydrates our soul’ – and I’m not talking about the alcoholic liquid variety here! For most of us, companionship within our family and close family circles sustains us and provides the emotional resources we need to thrive in or relationships. However, for many adults and, unfortunately, children, acute loneliness due to lack of close family or friendship bonds causes a crippling lack of ‘hydration’, resulting in wilting human beings.

b) Plants respire through tiny holes in their leaves so that they can draw in air. Without air, a plant will simply languish and die. Human beings are designed to thrive but, for many, the opposite experience is true: they languish because they do not have meaning and purpose. This is the ‘air’ that keeps us from languishing. It starts almost from birth as we explore the world and discover our ability to influence outcomes but, if our sphere of influence dies and our sense of worth and dignity goes with it, so does our capacity to thrive.

c) Plants need light – sunshine in particular – and, as you are aware, they turn their leaves to face the the sunshine in order to absorb light energy. Apart from the obvious energy we derive from ingestion of food, we as humans need energising. We need stimulus. We need to be creative. We need to be problem-solvers. Much of this naturally develops through our play experiences as children but we all know that play has changed considerably in recent decades. Educators bewail the fact that children now spend much of their free time indoors – not outdoors with other children exploring, taking risks and developing essential social skills. However, as educators, we can help to correct this through the experiences we give children in school settings – and many nurseries in particular are very good at just that: creating vibrant play spaces for children to develop essential life long skills that energise their creativity.



There is plenty of truth in the old maxim attributed to one of my favourite thinkers, Albert Einstein:

Play is the highest form of learning.

He is also recorded as saying,

Imagination is more important than knowledge.

How are we facilitating children’s play effectively in order to develop their imagination –  in order to bring them sunshine?



Margaret Moore from The International Coach Federation writes in her blog post,

A sense of a higher purpose is a potent source of life fuel, especially when times are tough.

She also writes,

One of the most popular songs today (with more than 300 million YouTube visits), Katy Perry’s “Roar” speaks to the power of the human life force to make the world a better place. Katy sings from her jungle perch, “I am a champion and you’re going to hear me roar.”

But she also adds,

The vast majority of us are just surviving or even languishing—far from thriving, certainly not roaring.


So, to summarise,

A. Ensure you have a trusted circle of friends and family around you and, if you work with children, ensure they have the same.

B. Explore and discover meaning and purpose in your life and help others do the same.

C. Be creative in your problem-solving – and, above all, play. Then teach others to do the same.



I’ll finish with a quote from another of my favourite thinkers, Maya Angelou:

My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.

I’ll drink to that…

If You Don’t Want to Make Any Mistakes, Don’t Take Any Risks

Big Mistakes Rubber
Big Mistakes Rubber

Big Mistakes Rubber – available at most good stationers

You probably have one in a drawer somewhere – one of those ‘Big Mistakes’ rubbers (or erasers, if you’re reading this on the other side of the pond).

Although clearly a joke item, I imagine the ‘Big Mistakes’ rubber to have been created by someone who was tapping into the common acceptance that most of us hate making mistakes – that mistakes are wrong and that the person who makes mistakes is useless. So get the big rubber out, remove all traces of the mistake and pretend it never happened.

How wrong and how mistaken that is.

And how short-sighted we are if we believe that mistakes are to be avoided at all costs.



To my simple mind, there are two types of mistakes (at least in the context of this post).

There is the mistake made through foolish or careless error – such as stepping into the road without looking out for traffic – and there is the mistake made as a result of trying to do something new or difficult. The former should have been anticipated: we learn road safety for a reason. The latter is unavoidable – you cannot know what mistakes you are going to make when you try something new until you try something new.

And that’s where risk comes in: if you don’t want to make mistakes, don’t take any risks. And some people live like that. Pity.



Helen Keller famously said,

‘Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.’

And Albert Einstein is supposed to have said words along the line of,

‘The person who never makes mistakes never makes anything.’

I don’t think any of us truly gets rid of the fear and uncertainty we face when taking a risk but we learn to manage it because we know that, given the choice, we’d rather take the risk and hope for success than take no risks and achieve nothing. Risk is something we have to learn to manage – like fear, doubt and disappointment. We learn to take calculated risks – informed by judgement and experience. Blindly taking risks is another thing altogether and best avoided if the consequences are too painful to bear thinking about. Healthy risk is knowing and accepting the consequences of failure.



A child climbing on an adventure playground is taking a risk: he or she could fall but the anticipation of enjoyment through play far outweighs any notion of the likelihood of falling. If children considered every risk not worth taking, we’d have a lot of unused playgrounds around the country. Children learn risk naturally and its associated fear through play.

A fellow blogger describes his young daughter’s experience:

Amélie recently started French lessons. There is no trace of fear about this new activity. She does not seem worried at the prospect of not being good at languages, or getting it wrong. In all other aspects of her day to day life, if she makes a mistake and it is pointed out to her, she simply notes the error, correction and moves on. It is really simple. Making a mistake does not make her feel stupid or less happy, she just learns.

Coming from an education background and having watched many children learn, I know full well that this is not always the case and, in some instances, it is more the experience of the minority. Many children (and adults) are appalled at the idea of making mistakes and have not yet learnt that some of the biggest lessons in life come from the biggest mistakes we make.



I was laughing with my teenage daughter the other day as she was recounting the crazy things she and her friend do on the way to and from school just because… it’s fun. Our conversation moved on to the experimental behaviour of teenagers and young adults exploring their world as if it is one big adventure and the risks they take in the process. Although it is entirely natural to explore and I encourage risk-taking, some of these young people get themselves into serious trouble – not because they aren’t aware of the risks but because they’ve not received or taken advice on ‘educated risk’.



I applaud risk-taking – but not at the expense of safety. As a teenager myself, I took what I consider now to be huge risks, often embarrassing myself in the process, but I had been sufficiently well-educated to know which risks just weren’t worth taking.  I probably wouldn’t take those kinds of risks today but young people learn about their world, other people in it, their limitations and the limitations of others when they take risks. Risk-taking is essential to growth, development and success.

In fact, someone even suggested that ‘success’ is spelt R-I-S-K.

So let’s encourage our children and young people to take healthy risks but to prep them beforehand – not with fear, but with knowledge – and then trust in their capacity to apply common sense and learn from their mistakes.

The world will be all the better for the mistakes they make in their youth that help them to apply the lessons learned when they enter adulthood.

Make Peace Where You Are

Swans On Lake" by anankkml
Swans On Lake" by anankkml

Image: anankkml /


Next to happiness, it’s probably what we are all most in search of.

Some people seem to possess it naturally. For others, it appears to pass them by.

As adults, we learn to cope with the absence of peace as we struggle to manage what I call ‘The Big Ds’ in my assemblies, workshops and seminars: discouragement, disappointment, disaster, doubt, difficulty (you could add more, I’m sure). We are grateful when we can snatch a moment of peace but it often eludes us because of unwanted and unwelcome distractions.

As a headteacher for a number of years, I practised an ‘open-door’ policy. The only ‘moments of peace’ I was able to manage were at the end of a day when most had gone home and the phone had stopped ringing. Then I could concentrate on what I’d been planning to do all day. But even then, was my mind at peace? Not if I was under pressure to meet a deadline or struggle with making data make sense.

But I did learn that you have to make peace.



Sometimes, making peace means choosing to take yourself away from the place where there is no peace and putting yourself in a space where there is.

My place for peace happens to be our loft room. I’m alone, undisturbed and away from distractions. I can think, write, reflect and create. But that’s not the only place – the swimming pool is equally constructive as a place for peace. No one disturbs me, there are even fewer distractions (no phone!) and it’s a great place to reflect. The car is a great place to be at peace – not sitting outside on the roadside but returning home, often with the radio off. And another place, although less frequented, is the green spaces on the other side of the dual carriageway from where we live.



It goes without saying that making time for self (‘me time’) in order to still your thoughts is pretty much essential. Without creating time for your mind to be at rest, you don’t give yourself a chance to detach from situations that deny you peace.

The best time of day for me is at the beginning of the day before the rest of the family are awake. I’m awake, alert and usually at peace. It’s a great time to reflect, to gather my thoughts and to focus. Others might find the end of the day is better. It really is down to personal preference.



And, sometimes, making peace means turning from someone who disrupts any chance of peace to someone else who helps to creates peace. It may mean removing yourself from a situation that robs you of peace and putting yourself in an entirely different situation that grants you peace.

I particularly enjoy meeting up for a coffee with a like-minded human being – not necessarily to talk about anything of consequence but just to bask in the company of someone who accepts you for who you are and allows you to be yourself. The most precious of these moments of peace is when you can be with someone and not feel you have to say anything. It’s a connection that is priceless.

None of this is escapism – this is pure, life-saving common sense.

You do have to go back, of course. But having that time or place or friend to  re-energise you puts you in a better frame of mind to make peace on your return, whether it’s in a place, in a situation or with a colleague. If you can’t change a situation, having a mindset where you can accept it without letting it affect you (that takes time), helps to create peace.



I couldn’t finish this piece without bringing it round to the children we work with.

As we all know, some children have an almost total absence of peace within their home environment and school is their only haven of peace. As educators, we have a huge responsibility to model and to make peace, not just for these children but for all children within our care. Creating a climate of peace is fundamental to children’s security and ability to learn. And educating them about peace helps them to be agents for peace. Accepting children for who they are helps them to experience peace.

I am reminded of a quote from Haim Ginott’s book, Between Teacher and Child (1965):

I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.

But it is not only the children who need school to be a place of peace: adults within school need to be at peace at work. In order to get the best productivity out of everyone, leaders and managers should ensure their staff can work in a climate of peace. That’s not to say there won’t be pressure but just imagine working under pressure in a place where there is an absence of conflict, where trust resides and colleagues accept each other, support each other, listen to each other and don’t judge or blame each other. Peace.



In 1969, John Lennon sang ‘Give Peace a Chance’, a moving song with a remarkably short and simple lyric.

Peace doesn’t just happen – we have to make it happen. It happens when we give it the chance. And it doesn’t happen by trying to escape. That’s why we have to make peace where we are.

As Virgina Woolfe pithily reflected,

You cannot find peace by avoiding life.

I’ve talked about acceptance a couple of times within this post so it seems appropriate to finish with what many call ‘The Serenity Prayer’:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can – and wisdom to know the difference.




Let your knees do the talking


Working with a Reception class recently, we recounted the well-known fairy tale of the Three Billy Goats Gruff. With a little imagination, a low-level chair became a bridge and a child duly took on the role of the troll. In this version, no less than six billy goats trip-trapped across that hapless troll’s bridge, much to his consternation.

The rest of the children joined in with trip-traps and rumbling (the troll’s hungry tummy) and the troll eventually received his comeuppance and was tipped into the river, never to be seen again.

You can imagine the enthusiasm of the 5-year-olds. So much so that they did it again in smaller groups outside – using an upturned crate for a bridge and building a wall of foam blocks behind which the troll could hide and spring up from. By far the most exciting part was the biggest billy goat knocking the wall down on top of the troll…

But don’t we all just love a good drama?

What is so compelling about role-play, about that often-admired but seldom acquired skill of acting?

At the start of a drama workshop, I often ask children when they last saw a drama – people acting. They respond with suggestions such as a Christmas nativity, a pantomime, a school trip – but are surprised when I state that most of them would have watched drama on their TVs the evening before.

Drama is a natural part of our human experience – we use it to communicate, to tell a story, to persuade, to deliver a message, to make sense of our humanity. Drama is compelling form of communication – and it sticks.

Drama requires us to capitalize on forms of communication that we take for granted: voice intonation, facial expression, body language. Try NOT using your voice, relying only on your body – let your knees do the talking. Children find drama empowering and they often surprise us with their insight, interpretation and ability. It brings out essential creativity and communication skills and, within a group, builds collaboration effectively. This clearly has the potential for impact on their learning and achievement right across the curriculum and, of course, in their relationships and personal well-being.

Even a troll can work that one out…


Some useful drama resource websites:


Image by Victor Habbick, courtesy of