Who knows what people live in the rainforests?" Jackie Zammit of the Rainforest Roadshow asks a group of seven-year-olds from Waterside primary school in Chesham. "Scientists," says one. It wasn't the answer that Jackie was looking for, but at least it showed that one important message about rainforests had got through even before the day had begun.
The children were visiting the Rainforest Experience, which runs until April 18 at the Iver Nature Study Centre in Buckinghamshire. Designed to give children a life-like impression of the sights, sounds, animals, plants and people of a rainforest habitat, the exhibition consists of a cleverly constructed mock-up, containing real plants and animals, as well as an authentic Amerindian hut complete with furnishings. Amazingly, the whole exhibition has been fitted into one small room - but it is still like entering another world.
"It has been our most ambitious project yet," says the centre's manager, Sally Munn, who relied largely on the ingenuity of the study centre's volunteer force to build the project, using foliage and plants supplied by Kew Gardens and materials donated by local firms.
The centre itself is a two-acre wildlife garden with visitor centre, managed by the charity Groundwork Colne Valley and supported by the National Grid, which owns the land. Made up of mini habitats - ponds, spring and summer meadows and woodland - it caters for children, adults and, particularly, special needs groups who might otherwise find access to the countryside difficult.
Activities with a natural history theme - an apple week, a butterfly week, a tree-dressing day - are organised each month and the centre mounts an annual special event, such as the Rainforest Experience.
It has benefited enormously from the involvement of the Rainforest Roadshow, which takes plants, small animals and artefacts into schools as components of a rainforest activity day. Linked to pop musician Sting's Rainforest Foundation, the roadshow consists of two solo "performers", Jackie Zammit and Dave Shaw, who have each developed their own travelling rainforest presentations.
Zammit, a 30-year-old geographer and former education officer for the British Association for the Advancement of Science, has built her show around the belief that enjoyable entertainment is the most effective way to awaken concern for the environment. She was particularly delighted to be asked to take part in the Rainforest Experience because it meant that she could teach in a "real" forest and hut rather than a school assembly hall. "I do my best in schools", she says, "but it can't match the excitement of being surrounded by plants, animals and rainforest noises, as the children are here."
The children are prepared for their mini-expedition by Jackie, who sets the scene and finds out how much they know about rainforests. They inform her that "it rains too much" and she tells them it is also hot, steamy and dark. She shows them a map of the world with the equatorial rainforests marked in blue, then gets them to identify the different layers of forest on a large picture and stick on various cut-out creatures.
Once inside the rainforest, they have to find as many animals as they can to log in a diary. More than 50 species are camouflaged in the foliage, including parrots, toucans, butterflies, monkeys, frogs and a 12-foot anaconda. Crickets and an iguana called Barney are protected in glass cages and terrapins bask in the pond beneath the waterfall.
Later, the group sits down in the thatched bamboo hut to learn about the indian way of life. Everything is so real - from the child's bow and arrow to the hammock and shopping bag made from twisted leaves - that the children are convinced that the genuine owner will appear any second. But Jackie Zammit makes up for the owner's absence by producing live tarantulas and stick insects. These were bred in Birmingham and so have not been taken away from their true homes. She also pops a balloon from a distance with a blow-pipe to show how tribes such as the Kiapo and Warani hunt for food. "These clever people are not like the Romans who lived so long ago," she says. "They are there right now and you can go and meet them."
Above all, she conveys to the children the dignity and naturalness of the tribal way of life and shows how people depend on the forest not only for food but for the materials they need for houses, weapons and medicines.
Finally, everyone has their face painted with a tribal design that denotes a wild animal: an eagle, a snake, or perhaps a jaguar. The indians, they learn, believe that the spirit of the animal will protect them when they are out hunting. Each face takes Jackie about 20 seconds to complete. But the lessons of this imaginative day will last a lot longer.
* Contact Sally Munn, Iver Nature Study Centre, Slough Road, Iver Heath, Bucks SL0 0EB. Tel 01895 270730.
* For information about the Rainforest Roadshow, contact Jackie Zammit, Turweston Manor, Turweston, Brackley, Northants NN13 5JX. Tel 01280 702494. Or Dave Shaw, Stokewood Crossing Cottage, Stokesay, Craven Arms, Shropshire SY8 9AH. Tel 01588 672649.