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Environmentally friendly fun

You can't be too young to learn about sustainability, as Phil Revell discovers on a visit to a woodland centre

The land surrounding a National Grid substation doesn't spring to mind as the natural choice for an environmental centre. However, Bishops Wood in Worcestershire offers teachers a huge range of activities, from foundation-stage language and listening skills to A-level ecology.

When centre manager John Rhymer arrived in 1989 to set up a resource base for Worcestershire's schools, Bishops Wood was a collection of mobile buildings.

"We were trying to help the environment and set a good example and yet we were teaching in an energy-inefficient portable building," he recalls.

Even at that stage the centre's innovative approach to environmental education was attracting a full programme of visits. The combination of high visitor numbers and poor facilities clearly couldn't go on and John decided to lean on his corporate neighbours.

"We persuaded the National Grid to put in some of the money for a new building," he says.

The funding was matched by the local education authority, and the local Training and Enterprise Council (now the Chamber of Commerce) chipped in as well.

The result is a new building, based on environmentally sound principles that, wherever possible, has been constructed from recycled materials. Built from wood, around a central brick tower, the centre has teaching areas, a bird study area with one-way glass, a resource library and wooden verandas to allow children to work outside even on the wettest of days.

The surrounding woodland offers a rich learning environment, with ponds, coppices, birch scrub and oak forest. Classes can go on a mini-beast safari. Armed with bug boxes, nets and beating trays, the children can learn about the complexity of life on the forest floor. That ties in with science and geography at key stage 2, and are downloadable from the centre's website.

Teachers aiming to develop children's understanding of sustainability can choose from a variety of theme days. Walter's Watery Day demonstrates how we use and lose water in our everyday lives. Children can see how the centre's reed beds turn sewage into clean water. They can use intermediate technology pumps to bring water to the surface and transport it to their "villages". The theme is even highlighted in the centre's toilets, where a wall mural illustrates the water cycle and, once again, the handbook provides the curriculum mapping for teachers.

John believes that much of the centre's success is down to his staff, who deliver the themed lessons and modules, leaving teachers free to manage their classes and pick up as many tips and resource ideas as possible to take back to schools. Increasingly, the centre is catering for younger children.

"The bottom of key stage 1 and the foundation stage has just rocketed over the last few years," he says. "Reception classes used to tag along with Year 1, but increasingly they are being bracketed with nursery classes. We are developing programmes specifically for the foundation stage."

One of those programmes is the Three Little Pigs. The centre has a Saxon house made from rough-hewn timber and a house made from straw. "With those on site how could we not have a programme based on the three little pigs story," says John. Bishops Wood also organises "Forest School" activities in part of the woodland (see box).

Lunch for visiting groups is part of the experience. Classes are asked to bring an environmentally friendly packed lunch. Once they have eaten, children are asked to put food scraps in one pile and litter in another. Centre staff then lead a discussion about the costs and disadvantages of packaging.

Beyond the centre, groups can learn how to make willow structures or recreate a Dark Age existence in the authentically constructed Saxon meeting house. There are board walks for some of the forest walks, but children may need waterproofs and wellies, because it has to be raining hard before centre staff call a halt and transfer an activity indoors.

Bishops Wood has a bookings diary filled for months to come. Worcestershire schools have first call on the centre's services, but teachers have brought groups from as far away as Sheffield. There's no residential accommodation, so the centre's programmes are built around day activities.

"There's always got to be something in there about the environment," says John Rhymer. "And it has to be fun."

Bishops Wood CentreTel: 01299 250513 www.bishopswoodcentre.org.uk Costs: For a class of 30 children the minimum cost is pound;60 a day, for Worcestershire schools; pound;120 a day for out-of-county schools.

Email: bishopswood@4seasons.org.uk

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