Attenborough they are not, adventurous they are

29th October 2010 at 01:00
Pupils map habitats and survey wildlife over 10 weeks for environmental education group project

"You could be poisoned": the girl's grave warning is laced with relish. I have learnt to be careful if I stumble across a certain type of puffball mushroom and learnt the thrill of discovering danger in a modest patch of urban woodland.

Staff and P5 pupils at Davidson's Mains Primary in Edinburgh have realised that a five-minute walk from the classroom opens up an entirely different place of learning: unpredictable, hazardous, and entirely in tune with Curriculum for Excellence.

They are working with Earth Calling, an Edinburgh-based environmental education group, to map habitats and survey wildlife over 10 weeks. But the project is not confined to the weekly visit of director Gus Egan and his staff, as probationer teacher John Armstrong explains. "If you wrote down the timetable for the week, you would basically put `interdisciplinary'," he says of a project that makes the idea of discrete subjects appear quaint.

The opportunities for maths and science are easy to spot, but back in the classroom creative writing might come to the fore: it is easier to find the adjective or simile to describe a beetle's movement if you have just seen one wriggling through the undergrowth, Mr Armstrong says. Music also features, with raps extolling the joys of foraging:

"D Mains wood is a great place to potter,

It's good even when it's chucking down with water,

Go in the summer and go in the spring,

You might even see a bunny rabbit jumping!"

It may seem a big risk for one project to dominate the timetable for so long, but not if there is a clear and rewarding goal that binds all learning, Mr Armstrong believes. The nine-year-olds are working on a leaflet explaining what they have observed in the woods, which they plan to share with schools and libraries.

That goal provides motivation when struggling with the complexities of number-crunching or Venn diagrams, and has particularly spurred on children who have previously struggled in school.

"They know they're aiming towards something, not just doing it for the sake of it because a textbook says so," Mr Armstrong explains.

More motivation comes from pupils' realisation that the knowledge gap between themselves and apparent experts is not as wide as they thought. When children approach Mr Egan about a beetle, they have found that he often has to confess his ignorance of many of the UK's 3,000 species.

Pupils become empowered when they are on an equal footing and child and adult have to learn together, Mr Egan believes. It is also a powerful argument to present to teachers reluctant to take part in outdoor learning because they are not confident in their knowledge of flora and fauna.

"There's nothing better for us than when a child comes up and says, `What's this?'" Mr Egan says.

An element of danger is courted by Mr Egan and his team: "If children have not been stung by a nettle or scratched by a bramble, then they've not been doing what they should have been doing."

Pupils learn to make bramble smoothies and nettle soup, while the common woodlouse provides protein in slater paella. Such delicacies have not been sampled at Davidson's Primary, but Mr Egan has known few children to refuse.

The weather only keeps pupils indoors in rare and extreme circumstances, but whining about the cold and wet soon dissipates as they encounter a far richer wildlife than they expected. "We can find some pretty amazing bugs, which can be as exciting as anything you find in a rainforest," Mr Egan says.

Kara Hutchison and Gemma Laing were amazed to discover that the menacing puffball mushroom was one of about 20,000 species of fungi in the UK; Sonia Hogg surprised herself by gaining the confidence to hold a spider; and Shahida Mukit thinks being in the woods can be boring and scary, but becomes animated when recalling a "beautiful dragonfly" she stumbled upon.

Ask Jack Toal what he has seen and a stream of consciousness is released: "Caterpillars and plants and fungi and insects and places where badgers live and Himalayan blossom, I mean balsam . ". He leads me over to a patch of Himalayan balsam to show me a "white wasp" emerging from a flower coated in viscous, snowy-coloured pollen.

"A lot of these kids won't go on to become David Attenborough, but if we make them think twice about their woodland, that can only be a good thing," Mr Egan says.

The project has stirred a sense of righteous indignation among the school's 64 P5s that not everyone feels as protective of the woods. Mountain bikers have cut down trees to create obstacles, dog mess can be found lurking among leaves, and pathways are strewn with the detritus of teenage takeaways. Jack curls his lip in annoyance at the litter, and suggests writing to the local secondary school.

Outdoor learning is highly regarded at Davidson's Mains Primary by headteacher Dave Edwards and principal teacher Diarmid Harris. Outside the school is a classroom with 35 tree stumps for seats. Every week, each class is obliged to venture outdoors for a lesson.

When desire to escape the classroom's four walls is matched by determination to transcend subject boundaries, all sorts of artificial barriers come tumbling down.

"It's endless, this way of learning," says Mr Armstrong.

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