Nature, nurture and pizza: How an innovative farmhouse project is teaching families everyday practical skills

Two dozen people are sitting around a Kent farmhouse table eating lunch – a homely and unremarkable scene. But the anxiety of some of the adults, and the feral eating habits of some of the children, show this is not what it seems. For many of those passing around the plates of fresh pasta and salad this is a rare moment of normality in traumatised lives.

In today's "broken Britain", more and more children are exhibiting severe social and emotional problems. Almost 350,000 children a year are either temporarily or permanently excluded from school, many for attacking teachers or other pupils, and problems are appearing at ever-younger ages. On average, 35 primary school children a day – some as young as four – are suspended for things such as kicking, biting and chair-throwing.

But the services that help troubled children are stretched to breaking point and often ineffective. All that most can offer is a drug regime or short stretches of talking therapy. So an innovative project whose approach offers real hope for such children is attracting interest from across the UK and abroad.

In fact the word about Dandelion Time, based in a rambling farmhouse outside Maidstone, began to spread almost as soon as it started, seven years ago. Two years after it was launched, a Kent-based child and adolescent psychiatrist, Mary Cameron, was describing it as "the best programme I've ever seen, in my whole professional life." More recently Tim Edmunds, a filmmaker and creator of the hit children's TV programme Art Attack, who visited to make a video, said, "What they are doing there is quite extraordinary. When you spend time there, and watch how they work, you realise just how extraordinary."

The project offers a programme of wholesome, everyday activities that cloak a powerful blend of therapy, teaching, human warmth and common sense. Every day, a dozen or so children, aged from seven to 16, and their parents arrive in taxis to spend the morning tending the farm garden, looking after its animals, doing art projects and cooking lunch. Looking after them are two psychotherapists, a farmer, and assorted interns and volunteers. At the end of the morning everyone sits down to eat a family meal.

It looks so simple, and the atmosphere is relaxed, but every chance is seized on to bolster confidence, develop skills and rebuild relationships. "We might look as if we're gliding along on the surface," says Graham Carpenter, a psychotherapist and the project's director, "but underneath we're paddling like crazy. What we're trying to do is break the cycle of abuse, which has often gone back generations, by providing experiential, developmental, educational and therapeutic support. But the way we do it is by working with experiences that arise out of the day, rather than sitting down and talking about things in a cerebral way."

Carol Bridges, a fellow psychotherapist and the project's child-and-family lead practitioner, explains: "It's all about using practical tasks to raise self-esteem and self-awareness. When we do things like picking vegetables from the garden, and chopping them up in the kitchen, it's all part of helping people reconnect with themselves and with each other." Her background as a midwife and health visitor makes her a warm and supportive presence as anxious parents and noisy children embark on these tasks.

Dandelion Time runs on three key principles. It will only work with a child if a parent or main carer will also get involved – children's problems almost always stem from family problems. All its work is based on practical activities. And it always starts from wherever a child is – if a boy needs to hide under the table at lunchtime, he will be patiently supported until he feels able to sit on a chair.

And according to 14-year-old Will, whose multiple earrings bob and glitter as he talks, it really works: "I've been coming here once a week for six weeks and I've asked for more. I was having a tough time at school and there were arguments and friction at home, but it's really nice here. You can open up to people and get away from things. You also get to do woodworking, which is quite hard and frustrating, but I've found I've got a knack for it. I've learned I can be a nicer person, and feel better about myself, and I'm not in a bad mood when I get home, so that makes my mum happier too."

"When young people first come here they usually don't feel good about themselves. You didn't, did you, Will?" says Graham Carpenter, joining the conversation. "You could lose it big time. Then I remember one day when you were doing woodwork and it was going wrong and I saw your knuckles going white. And I thought, 'Oh crikey, he's really going to lose it here.' But you didn't, did you? And from that moment on things went much better."

The project is working by telephone with Will's mother, as she feels unable to come to the centre, but Jen Grainger, 30, has been coming to the project with her son Josh, 9, for the past two terms. "He had behaviour problems and he was being excluded from school. He's like me, he can kick off. But now we've had no more exclusions and no more black clouds." Josh, coming up behind her, fingers the fresh spaghetti she has just helped to make and is hanging on a pole to dry. "Wow, Mum," he whispers. "Did you do this? You're amazing."

The adults who come to Dandelion Time have backgrounds that can include rape, domestic violence, drink, drugs, depression and self-harm. Relationships with their children have often descended into rows and resentment, while the children themselves might have been beaten or sexually abused, be on the autistic spectrum, or be the main carer for a disabled parent. In the kitchen, Angela George, 40, has come today for the first time with two of her four children – Aidan, 10, and Caitlin, 8 – and is helping cook the spaghetti sauce. "These two fight, and they say he might have Asperger's," she says. Her life is difficult and she looks exhausted. "People were blaming me for being a bad parent, but now they realise I need support."

Graham Carpenter, passing by, arranges a spontaneous tasting test by making Angela shut her eyes and getting Aidan to slip pieces of different types of tomatoes into his mother's mouth. It seems like casual fun. "But so much of our work is about trust, and rebuilding bonds," he explains later, "so we do anything we can to help with that."

Outside, the children help look after the farm's pigs, hens, ducks and guinea pigs, and cook pizzas in a home-built pizza oven.

Nathan Gill, 16, who has communication and language difficulties, asks a local pig farmer, Liz Offen, who supplies Dandelion Time with baby pigs, what television programmes she likes. "I don't watch television," she tells him. "In summer I'm outside working till 10 o'clock every night." The town-based families gathered round are clearly astonished to hear of such a life.

The project's farmer, Sean Murphy, believes that practical, outdoor work is crucial for troubled children. "I firmly believe that learning goes hand to brain, but these days it's all just thumbs." He mimes texting. "It's lovely to see how they change when they're here. We had one boy who just suddenly got it, and after that he took off."

What he doesn't say, but could, is that many children who come to the project also benefit from having male adults such as him whom they can look up to and build relationships with – caring men are thin on the ground in most of their lives.

Dandelion Time was piloted in 2003 after a local doctor, Caroline Jessel, grew frustrated at how little support was available for struggling children. It now takes in 100 children a year, funded through grants and local authority support, each costing between £7,500 and £10,000 for a placement which might run from weeks to months.

However external evaluations show that it has a lasting effect on the communication skills and patterns of behaviour of the families it works with. "And a problem family can cost the state anything between £50,000 and £150,000 a year," says Graham Carpenter. Now Dandelion Time is planning to launch two more pilot projects, one in an urban setting. "Our model is unique, but you don't need this space. You could do it anywhere," Carpenter says. "And it doesn't have to be the same scenario, other people could do it differently. We get people asking to visit us all the time, and not just from this country. We've got great hopes of growing it and extending it into other environments."

Finding successful ways to work with troubled children is urgently needed, not only to help the children themselves but also for the sake of their peers.

Recent research by Terry Hayden, a reader in education at the University of East Anglia, shows that, despite official figures showing otherwise, almost all teachers sometimes struggle with bad behaviour in class at times, and that disrupted classrooms affect the learning of all pupils.

Some 17,000 pupils were excluded from school for physical attacks on adults last year, he points out, adding that much more effort is needed to find "the best possible solutions for the problems posed by difficult and disadvantaged pupils".

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