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Fieldwork that is right up your street

For accessible fieldwork, Stephen Scoffham outlines how to set up a trail in your locality.

Whether your school is in the centre of a town, a suburban estate or a country village, the local streets and buildings are an important teaching resource. The pressures of the curriculum and the timetable constraints often make it hard to justify lengthy educational visits. On the other hand, the immediate environment is much more accessible and easier to use. Local work also has the advantage of ascribing value to the world which pupils already know and where many of them live, enhancing their self-esteem.

There are many ways of structuring outdoor work. Trails are particularly useful as they focus children's attention on specific issues. The same streets can illustrate aspects of geography (building materials and house styles), history (life between the wars, the Victorian period), or religion (the things which people value and treasure). Depending on the questions you ask, the children can be prompted to collect information and material which they can analyse and process when they return to school.

Trails date back to the perambulations described in Victorian guidebooks. After the Second World War the growing demand for outdoor leisure pursuits in the United States led to a huge growth in trails and prepared routes in the National Parks. In due course imaginative teachers on this side of the Atlantic high-jacked the concept by adding an interactive or participatory element. Soon the educational press began to carry reports on how to use trails for teaching purposes. The Bulletin of Environmental Education (BEE) was particularly influential, pioneering a range of recording techniques and showing how trails could be used in urban, rather than rural, areas.

Devising a trail can be time consuming but it is a good investment because the same material can be used with different groups over a number of years. It is also fun to do and will enlarge your knowledge of the area around the school.

With increasing pressure on the school timetable there is a danger that fieldwork will be squeezed out of the curriculum. At the same time children are increasingly deprived of opportunities for exploring their immediate environment on their own because of parents' fears for their safety. A study by Mayer Hillman, for example, revealed that between 1970 and 1990 the number of seven and eight-year-olds walking to school on their own dropped from 80 per cent to less than 10 per cent. Hillman and others warn that children who are reared in "batteryconditions" will be less accomplished physically, emotionally, socially and educationally.

The argument for fieldwork has also been dramatically strengthened in the past few years by neurological studies of the brain. We learn best, it seems, from rich, multi-sensory environments that provide a range of messages and meanings. Our brains are particularly good at extracting patterns from real life situations where information comes in a variety of modes and there is immediate feedback. Devising a trail is one way of getting children out of the classroom and into rich and varied learning environments. Once you have broken through the barriers the chances are you will want to go time and again.

Stephen Scoffham is senior lecturer in geography education at Canterbury Christ Church University College. E-mail:

DEVISING A TRAIL: practical suggestions

* Decide whether you are going to focus on a theme (such as change), a topic (such as transport) or are simply going to select points of interest along a given route.

* Think about whether you want to base the trail on questions and answers, or "stops" at which pupils undertake a variety of different activities.

* Decide exactly where you are going to cross roads and assess any other safety hazards.

* Do not always choose the obvious route. If the trail leads down paths and alleyways it will be more interesting and contain surprises and contrasts.

* Do not make the route too long, but decide whether you want it to lead round in a circle to where you started.

* Provide pupils with a map of the route.

* Select the questions and activities carefully so they have a clear educational purpose.

* Avoid closed questions leading to a simple yesno answer.

* Keep the instructions down to a minimum so that the children do not spend precious time outdoors trying to decode the text.

* Include a variety of recording techniques such as surveys, lists, diagrams, labelled sketches and mapwork exercises.

Depending on the number of children, you may wish to send the pupils off in groups at intervals of two or three minutes. Alternatively, you can avoid crowding by getting half the class to do the trail starting from the other end. Some of the children may want to take photographs.

Many schools have videos and digital cameras. These are easy to use and produce versatile images. Whatever the situation, what is important is that pupils bring back to school experiences which will enrich and enhance their classroom studies.

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