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Older, wiser - and wetter;School Management

Eleanor Caldwell reports on how one school is making a splash with an activity-based scheme to help children succeed in the transition from nursery to primary

I just can't believe I'm actually at Low Port," whispers five-year-old Euan Morrice to his dad as he falls asleep. For the past nine years children in the final weeks of their nursery class at St Mary's Primary in Leith have had the chance to take part in the type of residential activity more usually associated with P7 classes.

The adventure starts at Edinburgh's Waverley Station, where children, each with a parent, take the train for a two-night stay at the Low Port Outdoor Education Centre in Linlithgow. Having seen videos of earlier visits by older brothers and sisters, they are well-prepared for two-and-a-half activity-packed days.

After exploring Linlithgow Palace, the children go to bed in family rooms and wake up next morning to plans for climbing a mountain, hunting bears and going canoeing.

As Joe Gibson's dad, Innes, points out, nursery teacher Margaret McPherson directs all instructions to the children. "Make sure you look after an adult when we cross the road," she warns.

"Who's ready to climb a mountain?" is met by eager cheers from the children and only one apologetic shake of the head - from a mum who is six months pregnant. Walking up Cockleroy, parents already see a new, confidentand adventurous side to theirchildren.

At the top, the group gathers around Margaret McPherson for a story. Helen Oxenby's We're going on a Bearhunt sets the scene for the children's hunt. Back down in the forest, Low Port's outdoor education teacher, Elspeth Pawlak, tells them to look for clues.

"It's a good time for baby bears," she says, "but you could frighten them away with too much noise." One worried little boy asks if there are meat-eating bears at the top of the trees, but Ms Pawlak keeps up the suspense, pointing out "pawprints" in the mud and an upturnedtree root with a stray chocolate wrapper inside. Sadly, no bears are found.

Gathering the children in a clearing after the hunt, Ms Pawlak produces an old teddy who explains to the children that "the bears have all had to go somewhere today". There's disappointment all round, but a steely resolve to come back and look another time.

Then it's on to the magnificent adventure playground in Beecraigs Country Park. As well as the usual climbing equipment, mini JCB diggers are a great attraction, and give a whole new purpose to the sandpit.

"It's great to be doing all these things and not having to make any decisions," says one mum. "It gives you a chance to relax with your child and let someone else take charge." Margaret McPherson even takes over at night,reading a story to the children when they are washed and ready for bed.

Trivial Pursuits and a couple of glasses of wine finish the day off for the parents. "We're getting to know each other better. It's much nicer than at the school gates," says Ursula Green.

Next morning the children visit Muiravonside Farm, where they walk fearlessly among pigs and goats. Then comes the real highlight of the day. Children, mums and dads are kitted out with buoyancy aids, experienced adult canoeists are identified and everyone heads for the canal.

Each canoe is taken over by two children, with one experienced and one novice adult canoeist. Even the children who step into the wobbly canoes with some trepidation come out beaming after their trip round the canal basin. Some of the parents reveal hidden talents as proficient canoeists.

Throughout the day, former nursery teacher Avril Williamson is shooting a video, and each child will receive a copy. She no longer teaches at the school but loves coming back and working with the children.

Asked what he thinks of his trip to Low Port, five-year-old Barney Williams-Kelly beams and says: "It's great." One of the mothers agrees, adding: "It wouldn't be the same if youwent with just your own children. Sharing the experienceis the thing."

Another says: "It's a new sort of bonding process before they go into primary school."

St Mary's headteacher Mary Clason finds the children's experience at Low Port is reflected by new confidence in Primary 1. The combination of team-working, independent learning and leadership skills developed is particularly useful.

Low Port has helped the children assume a new sense of responsibility for their work, she adds, from the basics of taking the correct equipment from class to class, to delivering notes to teachers in other classrooms.

She also endorses parents' comments on the advantages of getting to know and learning from each other, and says many parents wish the Low Port experience had come even earlier in their children's education.

20H Scotland School Management

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