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In nature we trust

Unique projects are taking place across much of the UK. Christina Zaba finds out about the National Trust guardianship scheme

The Year 2 children are looking at the huge yew tree. Its branches overshadow all 30 of them. Chloe spots something. "That's fungus. I've never seen fungus before," she says, gripping her end of the string she's using to measure the enormous girth of this tree. "We felt the bark, bumpy and swirly," writes six-year-old Emma later, in her poem. "We smelt the honey-like scent. It was good and fresh."

She's from Parson Street primary school in inner-city Bristol. It's only a few miles from Leigh Woods, but it might as well be the other side of the world. Most of the children have never been here. Luckily, the National Trust guardianship scheme made it possible. With more than 100 such projects based throughout the UK, the scheme aims to set up enduring and supportive partnerships between schools and the trust. Mostly environment and conservation-based, projects and activities are devised and run by trust wardens and education officers working in collaboration with teachers. Each one is unique.

"For the past three years we've tried to bring every child in the school to the woods at least once a year," says Shilpa Beale, environmental science co-ordinator at Parson Street. "The woods have become an extra learning environment.

"Our visits tie in with classroom work in art, maths, science, literacy, history, geography, poetry. We've also established a conservation area, with a pond and a copse."

The NT guardianship scheme began in 1989. Consisting of at least six visits from the school to the trust site, usually for a couple of hours and paid for by trust funds, it's a fresh way to approach classroom work. It extends children's experience in a partnership that aims to spill over into the wider community, getting schools and families involved as the children engage with their new-found awareness, skills and experience.

Working with trust education officers and wardens, they gain access to a wealth of skills and a broad spectrum of resources not normally found in the classroom, as they become "guardians" of the environment, countryside and community. A guardianship aims to change people through meaningful experience. It's intensely practical and almost wholly outdoors.

"In winter we do hedgerow planting; in spring we'll take the children on a beach day, looking at rock pools, gathering driftwood for sculptures, and fossilling," says Rob Rhodes, trust warden at Golden Cap in Dorset. "There are so many ammonites and belamites being washed out of the cliff every day that you can pretty much guarantee every child in a class of 30 will find one."

Working with St Catherine's school in Bridport, Rob is enthusiastic about the scheme's gains for the children, teachers, schools and the trust. "We design the programme around the needs of the school and the features of the given property to tie in with classroom work: Victorian farming, river study, whatever. We finish the year with a presentation in assembly: each child gets a certificate, balloons and stickers, and they tell the school what they've been doing."

Kate Allen, National Trust guardianship project officer, tel: 01822 835809.

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