Survival skills in quiet enjoyment

Jonathan Croall

Jonathan Croall visits Lake Windermere with a group of city children and discovers the growing appeal of the national parks.

For a moment there's uncertainty. Then one small girl takes charge. "We'll put our shelter under this tree," she announces. "Trust me, I'm good at tying knots."

All around this narrow stretch of the shore of Lake Windermere, groups of nine-year-old inner-city children are deciding where best to pitch their makeshift shelters, armed only with a large polythene sheet and a length or two of rope.

For these 50 Year 5 youngsters from Intake Middle School in Doncaster, it's a rare chance to discover at first hand what skills are needed to survive in an outdoor environment. Tutor Rick Kevan, a former national park ranger, has told them at the start of the afternoon: "You've got to accept each other, your strength is in working together."

This survival skills course is just one of the many activities in the Learning through Experience programme offered by education staff in the Lake District National park, and run from Brockhole, the park's visitor centre situated on the eastern side of Lake Windermere.

Catering for all ages, from infants to university students, the programme includes modules on farming, glaciation, earth caretaking, land use conflict, land management, tourism, and landscape change.

For primary pupils specifically there are discovery walks, and a Squirrel Nutkin Environmental Trail - by Derwentwater, where Beatrix Potter set her story.

The underlying aim of these activities is to help promote positive attitudes towards preserving unique environments such as the lakes. This, according to school visits officer Ian Shaw, is generally no problem with young people. "They're very aware of the issues. They have a broader knowledge than many adults," he says. "You're really preaching to the converted."

Nevertheless, education is generally seen as crucial in fulfilling the basic aims of the 11 national park authorities in England and Wales. These are to conserve the environment, promote quiet enjoyment and understanding, and work with local communities.

So almost all the parks provide a service to schools and colleges, either by laying on their own half-day, one-day or week-long courses, or by responding to teachers' requests. Only the Broads, the youngest of the national parks, works in a different way, funding local bodies within the area to help with education.

In addition to hands-on activities, the parks' service usually includes a range of publications, and information and advice for teachers. Some parks run residential courses at centres within the park; others send rangers and other staff into schools, especially local ones, to work directly with pupils.

"We're trying to get across the message of sustainability and preservation, and to prevent the park being over-used," says Kate Jonas, education officer for the Yorkshire Dales. "So we don't actively encourage schools to visit, though we'll help them if they're coming anyway. We hope teachers will consider, if say their pupils are studying a river, whether it would be more appropriate to do so in a country park."

Earlier in the day at Brockhole, the Doncaster youngsters took a cruise around Lake Windermere. It's a great vantage-point from which to observe the wonderful diversity of the landscape, as well as to absorb its startling beauty, and the children are clearly thrilled.

But there's work to be done. Microphone in hand, Colin Horman - one of a panel of ex-teachers used as tutors - encourages them to note the natural and constructed features around the lake, the leisure uses of it, and the reed beds, islands, woods, and other habitats visible on and beyond its shore. He asks for their ideas about what is good and bad for the Lake District. "There are no right answers: it's up to you to decide." He starts to explain the controversial proposal for a 10mph speed limit on the lake - but his words are drowned out by a power boat.

* Brockhole, Windermere, Cumbria LA23 1LJ. Contact the education officer, tel: 015394 46601.

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