Ecology can provide an ideal pathway into science for youngsters. Skills such as observations, measurement, data collection and interpretation develop in familiar surroundings alongside a growing appreciation of the complexities of the natural world.
Each Starting Ecology book contains a collection of projects which investigate a particular habitat. Designed as an introduction for primary children, the series could be used equally effectively at home or school.
In Pond and Stream, Colin Milkins suggests practical ways of investigating aquatic life in situ and through classroom experiments. Some indication of size in the animal identification key would be useful, but otherwise the activities are clear and purposeful. They guide youngsters to explore adaptation of individual species, record the response of organisms to changes in conditions and examine some of the important properties of water.
Many of the activities in Wasteland are equally applicable to a school wildlife area. Recording butterfly landings on buddlia, setting pitfall traps for minibeasts and establishing a nature trail could all be done in a wildlife garden. So could an experiment which covers up daisies to find out how long the petals take to close. Daisy petals are only open in daytime. That's why they were named day's eyes. Did you know that?
Teachers' notes at the back of each book give likely results of investigations together with advice for helping the children. In Wasteland these notes could have mentioned the potential hazards of a litter survey, the need for a preliminary visit by an adult and the desirability of wearing plastic gloves.
Colin Milkins's writing style is straightforward and encouraging. The illustrations, mostly photographs taken by the author, show both experimental procedure and example records.
The activities appear clear and simple, guiding children to generate results and findings. This simplicity is deceptive, as many projects lead to other more open questions which youngsters can choose to follow up for themselves.
Starting Ecology will help children to understand the nature of their environment through practical enquiry. This carefully structured approach might also establish the basics of scientific investigation.
Dennis Ashton is a Lecturer at the Centre for Science Education, Sheffield Hallam University.