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How do our children grow?

Getting back to nature will help pupils understand all aspects of learning, claims Mags Long.

How best do our children learn? When we give them opportunities to be fascinated, intrigued, motivated, inspired and enthralled to explore, question and assimilate. But have we, over the years, lost a magical ingredient that fulfils almost all these criteria?

Reflect on our own childhoods and the opportunities we had to explore and discover in a safe environment the roughness of brick or bark, the smoothness of a marble column or sea-washed pebble, the spikiness of park railings and teasels.

Having enjoyed the freedom to explore and discover these experiences, we then inevitably came into a classroom - certainly in primary schools - which contained further opportunities to wonder, explore and discuss.

The nature or interest table, which consolidated our discoveries, was an integral part of "best practice". Surely we underestimated its contribution to learning? Many people in their thirties and older will remember their teacher bringing in bones, woodlice in rotting tree stumps, fossils and rocks of varied shape and texture.

Recent research reveals that while primary children can name all the Pokemon characters, they cannot recognise common berries, leaves or British trees. Ask the schoolchildren of the 1950s-60s if they've listened to the sea in a conch shell or broken open rosehips to find the sticky seeds inside (which often ended up as itchingpowder in your enemy's jumper).

Are we providing the same rich opportunities for our youngsters? Many are constrained from the freedom to discover for themselves a knowledge of, and respect for, our natural environment. Are we addressing this balance in class?

Not every school has environmental study areas, ponds or nature trails, yet bastions of these areas survive, and what incredible learning takes place through these studies. Indeed, there is a resurgence of enthusiasm for wildlife areas, willow and sensory gardens (too late for the many schools that sold their playing fields to raise capital in the 1980s).

One of the most powerful pieces of writing I've read was from an 11-year-old lad with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Having collected (and mangled) several dry autumn leaves in his hands, he wrote: "Crinkly, crackly, crunchy, dirty, dusty, scrunched - gone".

Consider, too, the mathematical reasoning behind this Year 2 pupil's examination of a rosehip branch: "I bet there's 20 huge seeds in there" (about 25 hips). On breaking one open: "Gosh, there must be thousands."

The effective upkeep of a nature or interest table (a tray is infinitely easier) is difficult - items are there to be touched, moved and interfered with. Yet every second spent rearranging, contributing to and reinventing the artefacts and display will be rewarded a hundredfold in the inspiration and response generated to support every area of the curriculum.

In recent years I have admired the tallest sunflower, or runner beans growing in and outside the classroom, marvelled with the children as they discovered potatoes don't grow on trees, and been amazed at the entrepreneurial skill of Year 2 pupils growing tomatoes in a Gro-bag and selling the products to their parents. The profit and sales in the classroom, alongside "growing tips for the next year", and an observation diary from day one, covered literacy, numeracy and science targets too numerous to mention alongside the significant art and Damp;T work and geographical research.

All this from three plants in a Gro-bag.

Mags Long is head of St Rumon's CE infants' school, Tavistock, Devon. She won the 2000 National Teaching Award for primary school leadership

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