Who that has had anything to do with the management of Sunday schools cannot recall some protracted teachers' meeting convened at the beginning of summer to discuss the plans for the children's summer treat? First there is generally a warm discussion as to whether they shall have a treat in the summer at all, or whether an entertainment in the winter would not be better; but when everyone else is thinking of their approaching holidays, it seems hard that the poor little children, particularly those in the back slums of our large towns, should not have one day's enjoyment of the fresh pure country air.
We think a change of air once a year to the country or seaside almost a necessity to the children of the higher classes, but hundreds of poor little creatures, cooped up all the year round in close rooms and narrow alleys, would never have a change of air, nor see the fields and lanes of the country at all, but for the annual excursions which have now become so general in all Sunday and ragged schools.
For children living in the country, who have plenty of fresh air all the year round, and a far larger share of healthy play than falls to the lot of the little ones in towns, there is much to be said in favour of winter treats instead of summer excursions. Being held in the schoolroom, there is not the fear that a storm of rain will damp the children's spirits and spoil their best clothing, and the anxious and responsible teachers are not kept in a constant panic by rumours that a boy has fallen into the river, or a girl is lost in the wood; and last, but by no means least, it is considerably less expensive. But, on the other hand, a very strong argument for the excursions in the summer is that they afford a great, often the only, opportunity for a teacher to become on a friendly footing with the scholars. The lower classes of scholars are too apt to look upon their teachers, either secular or religious, as their natural enemies, only one grade less obnoxious than the policeman, and these holidays give us an opportunity of showing them, by entering heartily into their happiness, that we are their friends as well as their teachers; and, indeed, that religion, of which we are in their eyes the representatives, makes us better able to sympathise with others in everything, their enjoyments as well as their troubles.
In most schools the discussion ends in favour of the summer holiday, and if this conclusion is come to, the next question to be decided is "Where shall we go to?" the details and minor arrangements being usually left to a select committee.
It has been said that if Rome had been built by a committee it never would have become the mistress of the world, and happy the school which has one competent person who will undertake all the arrangements and so dispense with the endless discussion of a committee meeting.
But to return to the question of a desirable spot for the excursion. This is generally a very knotty point, and a unanimous verdict in favour of any one place is as difficult to arrive at as though it were left to the decision of twelve stubborn jurymen. One timorous person puts his veto upon a lace, perfect in other respects, because it is too near the river, and children seem to make a point of getting drowned if within a mile of water. Another has a ghastly tale of tell of youthful scholars, decoyed away by gipsies, when it is proposed to pitch their camp for the occasion in a wood.
In choosing a suitable place the distance should always be considered, as the cost of conveyance is a serious matter to a poor school. Except in large towns, it is seldom necessary to travel far; the convenience of the place is the chief thing to be considered in the selection, for beauty and scenery are not so much the attraction to the children as the novelty of a picnic out of doors and of having a whole day with nothing to do but play. Nothing can be better than a large field, particularly if it contains a few trees, to which swings can be attached; for though in a limited space like a field it is necessary to provide more amusements, the extra trouble is more than compensated for by the comfort of knowing that all the children are safely under your eye and not getting into any of the mischief which children are so expert in finding out. Failing a regular field, we might put up with a common, or wood, or any private park which is open for parties.
One important consideration which must not be overlooked is the chance of obtaining shelter in case of rain. No one who has not suffered it can fully sympathise with the despair a teacher feels who has no means of sheltering the children, on seeing them huddled together during a heavy storm, like a flock of sheep, and looking very minute more wet through and miserable. One experience of this kind is generally quite enough to prevent its recurrence. It is most important that the superintendent, or some other competent person, should visit the place first to ascertain that there is a barn or room that can be used if required. If there is no such accommodation to be had, the best plan is to hire one or more large tents, the comfort of which will be found quite worth the outlay, and as the owner will always send men to put up and remove them, they are no trouble.
In the country, when a field can be had for the purpose close at hand, the greatest difficulty of these summer treats, that of conveying the children to their destination, is avoided, an advantage which country teachers cannot too highly appreciate. Comparatively few schools, however, are so fortunate; but there are contractors to be found in nearly all towns who will provide covered vans at a moderate cost, and most of the railway companies make special arrangements to convey schools at less than half price, so that the travelling expenses need not be so large as is generally imagined. The trouble and anxiety is a much more serious consideration, though if the teachers will all come forward t do their part even that is a very trifling matter.
It is generally arranged to meet at the schoolroom, when the children are divided into small parties, each party being assigned to the care of a teacher, who undertakes to see that they neither get into a wrong train nor are left behind altogether. This arrangement saves the superintendent a great deal of anxiety, and, indeed, if going by train, is almost a sine qua non.
And now, having reached our destination, how are we to amuse our young guests? As usual, the boys are most troublesome to cater for; but we generally succeed in making them very happy by providing some cricket-sets, a large ball for football (the goals have to be improvised on the spot), some bats for rounders, and any other games after which boy-nature is supposed to hanker. The number of each provided depends, of course, upon the size of the school.
In addition, we generally organise some jumping and running-matches, and other athletic sports. The prizes need not be at all valuable. We give simply a rosette of ribbon, which makes the winner proud and happy for the rest of the day, and is a most trifling expense to the school.
For the girls we take balls and a quantity of rope, to be cut up into swings and skipping ropes, both single and long ones; but they are much more easily entertained than the boys, and are usually quite content with different games which do not require any materials providing. Here comes in a splendid opportunity for a teacher who is fond of any kind of natural history to persuade those who are tired of games to notice the different flowers and birds and insects around them, explaining a little about each. It will be found that some of the girls will think little walks with their teacher a delightful change after a surfeit of games.
By the time the children have played for a couple of hours they will probably begin to get hungry. In most schools who go for the whole day no dinner is provided, but the children are expected to take their own; generally, however, their provisions are eaten, if not before their arrival, at least very shortly after it; so that when the proper dinner hour arrives they are very hungry and have nothing left to eat. In anticipation of this, it is customary to give each child in the middle of the day, either a large biscuit and cheese, or a thick slice of bread and butter, on the strength of which they can go till tea-time, which is generally about four o'clock. This meal, being the only one, is an important feature of the day; and the arrangements for it, unless it is contracted for, generally fall into the hands of one of the lady teachers.
When practicable, it is very much less trouble to put the whole thing into the hands of a contractor, who will provide a good tea, with crockery, tables and seats, for about sixpence a head; some of the large contractors do it for less. In consideration of the great saving of trouble and the little extra expense, this plan is much to be recommended.
For the assistance of those who are out of reach of these advantages, and compelled to manage the commissariat themselves, I will give a list of the average quantities supplied for 50 children.
Tea, 1lb; milk, five pints; sugar 4lb, bread, four quarterns; cake, 20lb, butter, 2lb.
If the children have not left home till after their dinner rather less than these quantities of bread and cake will be sufficient; but when they have been playing all day, with only such dinner as they take with them, their appetites become sharpened to a marvellous extent, and this supply will not be found at all too large.
The best time for treats has not been mentioned, but no rule can be given for it; as it must depend upon the convenience of the teachers, their presence in good numbers being of the first importance. Generally speaking, July is the favourite month, because as far as we can judge at all in our variable climate we expect more settled weather then than earlier in the year; there is also the advantage that the hay harvest being over, there is less difficulty in obtaining the use of a field.