Nature calls

Science, numeracy, literacy - all from birdwatching? Sean Young talks to one teacher who likes to work on the wild side

They're bats about birds at Tuckwood First School in Norwich. In fact, they're bats about bats and butterflies as well. And that is why the school's library is shrouded in darkness this week. Black paper over the windows has transformed it into a naturalist's hide, so that its 120 pupils can take part in the national Big Schools' Birdwatch, identifying and counting visiting birds.

"We were amazed at how much the children loved it," says Carol Champion, a teacher at the school. "And we were surprised at how many different species were coming in."

Tuckwood was one of a record 1,400 schools that took part in the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds' (RSPB)campaign last year. Between them, 36,000 pupils spotted 57,000 birds from 70 different species. Schools can spend as little as an hour birdwatching during the project fortnight, and get a pack of useful materials, including sightings forms and a bird identification chart.

Nationally, starlings were the most frequent school visitor, followed by the black-headed gull and the blackbird. At Tuckwood, where each group of children spent 20 minutes in their makeshift hide, they spotted finches, tits and even a thrush - highly unusual in an inner-city area.

"We had them birdwatching in groups of six. Only one or two of them didn't really seem to get that much out of it. Pupils liked the idea of using binoculars, sitting in the hide with the black paper on the windows, and they got a tremendous buzz out of trying to identify the different birds,"

says Carol. "They liked the fact they were doing something positive, and they felt the data they were collecting was important. It just worked on lots of different levels."

Though even more schools were expected to join this year's Big Schools'

Birdwatch (which runs until February 2) there can be few as committed to nature study as Tuckwood, whose grounds are an oasis in inner-city Norwich.

Since Carol left her previous job as an environmental education teacher at Norfolk Wildlife Trust to become a teacher at the school, Tuckwood has made more use of its extensive grounds in its curriculum.

During the past five years it has become an eco-school and an RSPB bird-friendly site. Pupils have created a meadow, a bat garden and a butterfly garden, and encourage birds to visit by feeding them daily during the winter.

"Part of the ethos of the school is trying to get the children accessing the curriculum as far as possible outside school, out in the fresh air, not stuck in the classroom," Carol says.

"The kids love it. They don't realise what they are doing. It's not like they are going to do science, they are going out to do gardening. And we can teach all aspects of the curriculum. With the Big Schools' Birdwatch, there's numeracy and tallying as you keep count of the birds. And of course literacy, science and PSHE are involved."

Any behavioural issues tend to disappear outside, says Carol, and the children are receptive to the messages they get from the eco-school project. "When they are little, they just automatically put their banana skin in the compost, and you hope that becomes part of the way things are.

As an eco-school, we have to look at different aspects of biodiversity, such as waste, energy and water use.

"The children established the bat garden because we knew they were in the area. They also put in plants which are scented at night and might attract moths.

"Some of the grounds have been left to become meadow, and there are plants for butterflies there, so we may hatch some in the spring. What we are doing with the RSPB is all part of that. It all makes ideas like the food chain a lot more relevant for the children. Science is all around them."

Carol says much of what Tuckwood has done was made easier by enlisting outside help. For instance, once it became an RSPB bird-friendly school, a volunteer came in with materials and information and suggested transforming the library into a temporary hide.

Norfolk, the school's local authority, has planted fruit trees in its new orchard and Tuckwood is not resting on its newly planted buddleia. Plans are afoot for it to join the BBC's Breathing Places campaign to create nature-friendly areas, fronted by Bill Oddie and Kate Humble, the TV naturalists, and if it gets a lottery grant, to build a permanent hide for school and community use in the grounds.

Carol says: "The children could use it, the community could use it and take over running it. It could go from strength to strength."


* Enlist help: the RSPB sends volunteers into "bird-friendly schools", and Norfolk County Council bought fruit trees for the school's new orchard.

* Get the children outside whenever possible.

* Projects such as the Big Schools' Birdwatch can be part of the curriculum in all subjects: maths (tallying up the number of birds seen); literacy (writing about sightings, identifying species from books and charts); and science (learning about life cycles and food chains).

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