An Oxfordshire park with its collection of zebras, lions and other unlikely beasts makes the perfect setting for a workshop that exercises children's powers of observation and literary expression, says Frances Farrer
It was an unusual writing workshop. Children spent the best part of a morning observing zebras, lions, meerkats, penguins, a giant tortoise, and whatever else took their eye. Led by Richard and Louise Spilsbury, it was a particularly imaginative part of the Oxford Literary Festival's schools programme.
The animals in the Cotswold Wildlife Park are kept in large, open habitats that are mostly bounded by ditches. The setting is spacious and semi-wild, with separate habitats for each species. The children were enthusiastic when they heard the list of promised beasts, and even more so when they got to see them.
Richard Spilsbury started the session with a talk about the books he has written and his life as a writer. This part was the link between observation and the result on the printed page.
Louise Spilsbury explained how books are put together, beginning with research in the library and via the internet, followed by planning the chapters, writing, finding the pictures, and finally receiving and checking the proofs. She made it clear that several books must be on the go at any one time to allow for the time-lags between the processes.
The children were given suggestions on what to observe, such as appearance, diet and whether the animals live in groups. They were also given ideas about using key words such as "powerful" and "sharp teeth" when writing notes.
Fortunately, the park's lions had two cubs, which could be observed playing. "When they play it's fun and their reflexes are getting faster," explains Louise Spilsbury. "Play fighting like that is useful when they grow up."
"Are lions' teeth the same as yours?" asks Richard Spilsbury.
"No, they've got long canine teeth," says a pupil.
"What do they use them for?"
"Lions and cats have big shoulders and big paws, but why?" A girl replies that the paws help the animals to hunt quietly, while a boy says the shoulders give power for movement.
Discussions about which were the meanest - cats, lions or tigers - soon involved other creatures. "If a great white shark could breathe air and come out of the water, and it fought a tiger, which would win?" asks a boy.
Richard Spilsbury had no doubt it would be the shark. Similar detail was gone into with the other animals. The children soon guessed that zebras run together for camouflage, and learned that meerkats are unusual members of the mongoose family and live together in groups. A faux desert environment has been created in the park for them.
The children also learned that penguins cannot swim when they moult, so they cannot catch fish then. They have to eat enough to keep them going for the three weeks it takes for their feathers to grow back.
Headteacher Clive Hallett of Wheatley Primary School near Oxford brought 38 key stage 2 pupils to the Cotswold Wildlife Park. "I liked the focus on four creatures, it made it very straightforward," he says. "The children were very positive about it, and many of them made good notes."
The insight into book production also attracted a great deal of praise. "I loved it," says Clive Hallett. "The children met people whose names appear in beautiful books, and many of them realised it's just ordinary people who have developed skills and then pulled together the expertise of designers, photographers and graphic artists."
This was the intention of the session, which was set up to demystify the process of book production as much as to promote observational skills.
"We wanted to say there was no mystery about writing," says Louise Spilsbury. She regularly helps at her own children's school "to keep in touch with the children and their language".
Clive Hallett says he learned about the logical sequencing of the animals'
attributes. "First, their appearance was discussed, then 'why are they that colour?' and 'why do they have that kind of coat?'
The Spilsburys repeated this procecss at every enclosure. They were telling children to make extended observations - for example, noticing how the aircraft passing overhead sent the meerkats into defence mode, as their natural threat is from big raptors."
The sequence for assembling a piece of writing - research, planning, writing, visual materials, and checking - was introduced and repeated. Then there was more talk and more brainstorming.
"It's always good to remind yourself of structure," says Clive Hallett. "If the children have to do an exercise in writing non-fiction it's a very good way of doing it - to see the thing for real."
Books by Richard and Louise Spilsbury include the Animal Groups series: Ants, Whales, Chimpanzees, Wolves, Lions, Crows (Heinemann Library from pound;10.50 each) and the Wild Britain series: Badger, Squirrel, Fox, Blackbird, Hedgehog, Seal (Heinemann Library pound;5.99 each)