Pupils can feel the "legs" on a royal python and see razor-toothed piranhas and other tropical animals at a Cheshire water garden. Gary Hayden reports
It's a dull January day, but Year 6 pupils from Thursfield County Primary School in Stoke-on-Trent are enjoying a break from the grey skies and winter temperatures. They're spending the day in the Palms Tropical Oasis at Stapeley Water Gardens in Cheshire.
A cold drizzle falls outside. But inside, the temperature is in the 70s.
Parrots and macaws call out to each other above the noise of cascading waterfalls, tamarin monkeys frolic in the branches, and razor-toothed piranhas lurk in the dark waters of a tropical pool.
Thursfield's pupils are regular visitors to the Palms. "It's fantastic," says headteacher Peter Brown. "Where else can you go to experience a tropical rainforest with all its plants and animals?"
There are four areas for pupils to explore: the Zoo Room, the Tropical House, the Centre Palms area, and the Tunnel of Underwater Life. There's also a delightful Italian Garden where you can eat packed lunches when the weather's fine, an indoor eating area and gift shop.
The Zoo Room houses an impressive collection of tropical creatures: tortoises, turtles, frogs, snakes, spiders, cockroaches and lizards of all shapes and sizes. The children are particularly taken with the tiny tamarin monkeys, Orinoco the baby crocodile and Suzie the Python, who weighs in at a colossal 60kg.
The Tropical House is the hottest and most humid area in the Palms. With its lush vegetation and tropical climate, it accurately recreates the look and feel of the jungle. Banana, pineapple and coffee plants jostle for space with a host of other exotic species. But pride of place goes to the world's largest aquatic plant, the Amazon water lily. During the summer, its circular floating leaves can reach up to 2m in diameter.
The Centre Palms area makes a perfect rest-stop. Here, everyone can relax on comfortable sofas beneath leafy palms, or watch koi swim lazily around their large central pool. The nearby Tunnel of Underwater Life is home to dozens of exotic fish, including stingrays, moray eels, lionfish, a shoal of piranhas and a tank of blacktip reef sharks.
A "Meet the Keeper" session allows pupils to observe some of the animals at close quarters. Keeper Simon Butler introduces them to a tarantula, giant millipedes, a royal python and a chinchilla.
Pupils are encouraged to stroke the python and are surprised that it doesn't feel at all slimy. They are even more surprised to discover that it has "legs" (two bony bumps protruding from its underbelly). Simon explains that snakes are descended from lizards, and that these vestigal legs, or spurs, are part of the python's evolutionary inheritance. After examining the spurs, one girl places her thumb and forefinger a tiny distance apart and mouths across the room to the headteacher: "They're this big!"
Palms curator Val da Fillery provides some first-rate resources to help schools get the most from their visit. Glossy Our World souvenir booklets, packed with photographs, facts and quizzes, provide a focus for learning for key stage 2 pupils. A teacher's copy, with answers, is also available.
New for 2005 are KS12 teacher's packs produced jointly with a group of local teachers and supported by the Staffordshire Project (the county's education business partnership). Each pack contains information cards, posters, topic webs, links to resources, and photocopiable worksheets.
At the end of the visit, one Thursfield pupil is asked to name the highlight of his day. He responds without hesitation: "The piranhas!"
* Cost: pound;2.35 per pupil, plus 50p if using the KS2 Our World booklet.
Meet the Keeper sessions cost an extra pound;1 per pupil www.stapeleywatergardens.com