Rainforests are a vital part of the Earth’s ecosystem – they're often referred to as the lungs of the planet. They're a goldmine of biodiversity, yet few students will get the chance to explore them in person; for most, they may seem like an alien world.
But while taking your class to the rainforest may represent a school trip too far, it is possible to bring the rainforest to your class through a combination of technology and an exploration of local surroundings.
Parks and woodlands may not match rainforests in terms of diversity – the Amazon is thought to be home to about 20 per cent of the world’s plant species, 20 per cent of bird species and 10 per cent of mammal species – but they can be a great starting point to study trees and habitats, and to help children understand the living world around them.
Placing students in an environment in which they can get a first-hand experience of nature can create an inspirational learning opportunity and help them to address questions that would enhance their learning. What does it feel like to stand beneath the trees? What sounds can they hear? Who uses the woods and for what purpose? How do our habits and human activity impact on our trees? What animals, birds and insects can be seen and heard? What might the woods look like from their point of view? There are even resources to help you explore how animals view the world.
By visiting your local woodland or park each term, and by seeing how they change through the seasons, pupils can appreciate that changes take place over time, as well as glean how different species rely on each other and how they’ve adapted to the spaces in which they live.
These visits can also help pupils to develop an understanding of who uses these environments and the competing interests of different groups. Mountain bikers, for example, could see a stretch of woodland as an ideal race track away from busy roads, but this activity could disturb ground-nesting birds and startle walkers in search of rural tranquility; and a housing development could bring jobs and much-needed homes, but may involve cutting down trees and destroying animals’ habitats.
Pupils could be tasked with interviewing mountain bikers and walkers, to research conflicting viewpoints. This would enable them to think about how problems such as these could be resolved and to realise the importance of sustainable development.
Exploring further afield
Where you don’t have access to woodlands or parks, or where time is stretched and budgets pressured, there are still ways to explore them, such as via this virtual tour of a Scottish woodland.
Once children have a good understanding of their local woodland or park, this can provide a launchpad to study more far-reaching locations. As well as allowing them to compare and contrast different environments, this also allows them to link issues such as sustainability to both their local area and the wider world.
Since the rainforest isn’t on our doorstep, we can turn to technology to help us get a better understanding of it. Films such as this, produced by the non-profit Conservation International, provide an insight into both the environment and the people who live and work there.
By listening to the villagers, pupils can appreciate different points of view – a vital part of geographical learning. While watching footage from rainforests, ask students to explore and jump to sections that engage them. What was it that amazed them? What is the same as a UK woodland? What is different? Ask them to write questions they want answered. Evoking the experience of being in a rainforest is key to prompting exploration and engagement.
Gathering information is important, too. Tropical forests have a rich biodiversity: they’re home to brightly coloured birds, unique insects and elusive animals, all living within the dense, growing trees and amid high levels of rainfall. Despite covering only about 1 per cent of the planet’s surface, the Amazon is home to 10 per cent of all the wildlife species we know about – and probably a lot that we don’t know yet.
Set pupils off to explore the Google trails in the rainforest and get them to think of specific aspects of the environment to look at. What is the same/different as the UK forest? What do you notice about the tree trunks/leaf shape? Get pupils to make a Venn diagram of similarities and differences. These trails are shown from a zip-wire, and can lead on to a discussion of the positive and negative aspects of tourism in the rainforest.
Pupils can explore the physical geography of rainforests and see the vast size of waterfalls with the amazing Airpano 360° films – a dynamic introduction for pupils to study climate and explain why rainforests are in specific locations of the world. Study questions could include: what clues are there that this waterfall is not in the UK? Should this landscape be protected, and if so, why? How much water do you use per day compared with people in another country? Links can be made with the pupils’ way of life and their choices about water usage, and then compared with those who live in rainforest environments.
Older children can make a real difference by taking part in the growing community of citizen science. Zooniverse has a range of ongoing projects covering climate, nature and plants that require "real humans" to look at the data and categorise images. Map Swipe is an app that gets users to add communities to the vast, unmapped areas of the world, much of it rainforest. This is a practical way in which education and schools can link with active scientists – it's a powerful learning tool. Pupils feel they can play an active role in helping the environment.
Story maps allow children to create their own digital story of rainforests, combining maps and text, along with video, to create their own digital document. There are templates to guide teachers and pupils, or you can create your own web page and maps in the ArcGIS Online cloud-based GIS mapping platform. Use the Global Ecosystem Explorer as a guide for what can be achieved by key stage 3 pupils.
Many students may never get to experience a rainforest themselves, but by using the resources we already have, we can help them come to appreciate them in all their magnificence – and to understand that although the rainforest is far away, it is not that distant at all.
Lesley Burnett is a primary teacher working at Esher Church School and Weston Green School. She is a committee member of the Geographical Association Group and tweets at @GA_ISIG