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Adventures in an online wood

James Simpson introduces two websites which encourage children to take an active part in the natural world around them

As the name suggests, Nature Detectives is about investigating nature. Its website aims to introduce young people to the world of phenology - the UK's fastest growing amateur science. Phenology is all about nature's calendar - the timing of natural events that should happen at the same time every year, like the first cuckoo of spring - and how it is changing with our climate. There is also the opportunity to take part in real scientific research into climate change and to see the results of contributions live on screen.

Thanks to support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the site is packed with free downloads and useful worksheets to enhance lessons. Some of them tie directly into the curriculum while others, like the "Leaf identification sheet" have a more universal appeal. There is even advice on projects and educational games for children to play like planting an E-tree in an online wood (see the Tree For All website).

Tamasin Croston from Calverly County Primary School, Cheshire, says:

"Planting an e-tree introduced the children to native and non-native trees, helping them to appreciate environmental issues. Afterwards we took them out on a tree-identification trek. We're surrounded by old hedgerows and used the leaf identification sheet to make a branching database of the different trees." Tamasin Croston liked the worksheet on how to build a butterfly house. Normally these cost around pound;40, but the school built its own for pennies: "We let butterfly eggs hatch in the classroom and the caterpillars built their cocoons there. It wasn't long before we had butterflies (which we released into the wild)."

Alison Millar from Campbeltown Grammar School in Argyll says: "I work with a KS34 group with additional support needs. We have found the tree identification worksheets and interactive games very useful."

Campbeltown School, which caters for a range of educational needs, can find it hard to select appropriate materials, but the Nature Detectives worksheets were so flexible that they fit the bill, and the internet access meant that even if children are unable to attend the class, they can still use Nature Detectives and join in that way. A keen user of the school's outdoor learning area, Alison Millar has just invested in Nature Detectives' supplementary book with extra worksheets.

At Maidstone Grammar School, Colin Taylor finds the flexibility of the site a boon. "We use the website to look at plant and animal life scattered around the country. With the younger ones, we're looking at the live tracking maps every week. We're trying to build in weather cycles as well."

He sees the website as curriculum enhancement rather than aimed at specific targets: "We have a biology club here and we go pond dipping. Year 7s love getting nets and looking at things under the microscope. We've kept one pond free of fish, just insects etc, and we have noticed that the frogs move from pond to pond hunting for food. You can see the way an ecosystem builds up and declines depending on what's in there. We're looking at extending our Nature Detectives work and doing some Springwatch stuff with the frogspawn."

l James Simpson works for the Woodland Trust

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