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Messing about in the river and dell

Creepy-crawlies and plenty of mud are the keys to engaging children in the environment, reports Denyse Presley

The Victorians' passion for naturalism makes the 19th-century former parish school of Slateford Village an appropriate location for a newly-refurbished centre focussing on the environment.

The Water of Leith Conservation Trust at Colinton Dell in Edinburgh is brimming with activities and discoveries.

The stone building forms the focal point of a pound;5 million project to highlight the river's environmental importance, its social and cultural history, and to develop the trust's conservation work. The river, from Balerno in the west to Leith in the east, is a haven for ramblers, cyclists, fishermen and nature-lovers.

The education programme is aimed at pupils aged five to 14 studying environmental science but the centre's applications to the curriculum are wide, building the skills of communication, imagination and memory.

"I had a big input on how activities would relate to the curriculum, having consulted schools," said Philippa McDonald, the education officer. "I wanted to recreate a walk along the riverbank, thinking about what you would do and find."

Her strong storytelling sense has a spellbinding effect on the Primary 1s. The pupils of Juniper Green Primary school in Edinburgh are about to discover evidence of bugs, slugs and beasties.

Using dramatic gestures and facial expressions, she reinvents an ancient creation myth about the goddess Indira who creates an intricate and easily-damaged web. Colours and shapes are painted in, until, into the web, the entire ecology of the world is spun. Captivated, the 20 children are soon chanting the green mantra "Don't break the web".

Before setting out on the river adventure, the children participate in a short seminar about the creatures they might encounter.

At the exhibition space, they split into smaller supervised groups. River-based activities are reported on a sunken-walled circular screen which the children peer into as they might a wishing well. Fun stethoscope-cum-telephones enable them to pick up the sounds of the riverbank from a painted mural and a life-size tree sculpture housing a hidden variety of wildlife. Wall panels introduce the birdlife and cards identify feathery characteristics.

There is a strong anti-pollution emphasis. The river is often cluttered with human detritus. A 3D graph, resembling a height wallchart, illustrates the longevity of materials such as styrofoam, which lasts more than 200 years.

The exhibition also has stainless steel and water mock-ups to show how flooding can be tackled.

Later, in the dell, they are armed with plastic tablespoons and sample jars for the all-important bug-search. Some of the children delight in finding slugs and caterpillars. Back at the centre, a magnified view of the specimens will be displayed on an overhead screen so their characteristics can be closely investigated.

Next is a spot of dipping. The children go out on to the river with nets, searching for signs of aquatic life. On the rivers and water course, aimed at Primary 7 to Secondary 2, this exercise becomes a test of the water's quality and there is an emphasis on sketching the colours and shapes.

The education programme previously linked directly into Standard and Higher grade requirements but, with the new centre, the courses have become more fluid. Staff are frequently asked to organise outreach projects which study the local history of an area on the river and Ms McDonald is happy to tailor activities to the needs of individual schools.

Outdoors, the watchwords are "touch, sniff and squeeze" and, once in the organic garden, the children do just that with the fresh compost.

"Of course, this is all very much more difficult with the teenagers", Ms McDonald confides. "One girl turned up the other day dressed like Posh Spice and refused to trail across the thickly-carpeted forest floor. Suddenly, she got into it, and started getting as muddy as everyone else".

Georgina Brown, a Juniper Green Primary teacher, has been doing minibeasts projects with her class, so their visit has consolidated some of their work. "It has been wonderful to have the video and the microscope which enables the children to view the bugs closely," she says.

Water of Leith Visitor Centre, 24 Lanark Road, Edinburgh EH14 1TQ. Tel: 0131 455 7367 Open daily 10am-4pm. School groups from 9am by arrangement.

Admission pound;2.20 a pupil, discount negotiable for groups of over 25, teachers and accompanying adults free.

Advance booking essential.

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