Thomas the Tank Engine is a regular visitor to many of Britain's preserved railways, but last year he was busier than usual, with the launch of Learn with Thomas, a series of educational days for pre-school and key stage 1 children.
One of the participating railways was the Kent amp; East Sussex, where, over six days, 1,800 children from 30 schools rode behind one of Thomas's friends and Daisy the Diesel Railcar. Not to mention meeting the little blue engine himself, Bertie the Bus, the Fat Controller and other characters.
In association with the Colne Valley Railway, Gullane Entertainment - which licenses the events - has produced an outstanding set of activity sheets for children to work on before, during and after their visit. They aim, in key stage 1, for example, to be compatible with the literacy, numeracy, science, geography and history parts of the curriculum. They are complemented by additional on-site activities provided by the railway.
"The programme is very much the interpretation of the railway concerned," said Sandra Marsh, marketing manager for Kent amp; East Sussex Railway. They had provided marquees for drama, English, numeracy and science activities.
Story-telling sessions were led by Christopher Awdry (son of the late the Rev W Awdry), who now writes the books.
He says it pleases him that there is so much in them that can be related to classroom activities. It was, he explains, a teacher friend who pointed out just how many links there were to topics such as rhythm, music, English and geography. "She ran through the entire curriculum with some Thomas-related topic," he says. Elaine Chantler, key stage 1 manager at Kingsdown amp; Ringwould School in Kent was visiting with Year 2 children. In history, the stories had enabled them to compare past and present, while in science they had discussed how water changes into steam. Preparatory work included reading some of the stories; they were, she said, appropriate to the Literacy Hour as children had to study work by well-known children's authors. Follow-up activities would include sending Thomas postcards to parents explaining what they had seen and done.
Georgina Keith-Hill had brought Foundation Stage children from Brunswick House Primary in Maidstone. "I was very impressed with the worksheets," she said. The activities, she added, "tied in well with Knowledge and Understanding of the World and People at Work; also maths and literacy."
Pre-visit work included pretending to go on a journey - discussing what they might take and how they might feel.
So, does Learn with Thomas actually work?
Elaine Chantler said: "I was told not to bring anything - just come along and have an enjoyable, fun day with the children. In that respect, the Thomas day is brilliant. Everything is very well organised; there's lots of short activities so the children aren't going to get bored."
And the kids? Suffice to say that as we steamed into the station at the end of an action-packed four-hours, a small voice piped: "Are we going on another train?"
The Fat Controller would be very pleased.
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