Bear facts

7th February 2003 at 00:00
Elaine Williams meets the creator of a bear who has introduced thousands ofchildren to the wonders of the world

For years primary teachers have been using cuddly toys as a device for teaching children about the cities and countries of the world.

Pupils heading to distant places for their holidays have been handed a teddy bear or toy dog to put in their suitcase as a kind of school mascot, with instructions to tell their class and write about where teddy has been on their return.

It was Elaine Jackson, however, when she was a headteacher in Cheshire, who put this device into book form, creating Barnaby Bear to teach children about geography.

A passionate geographer herself, she took on the task of co-ordinator for geography in her school, St Helen's Church of England primary in Warrington, and struck by the dearth of good texts for key stage 1, she decided to write a big book for her pupils based on the antics of Barnaby.

When the Geography Association, of which Jackson is chair of the primary and middle schools committee, caught sight of the book they immediately saw its potential.

Fran Royle, GA publishing manager said: "It has really set our primary publishing alight. It is formalising an age-old teaching device and using geography as a cross-curricular subject, drawing in maths, literacy, PSHE and citizenship. Primary teachers aren't geographers by and large and therefore they appreciate a resource to make their geography teaching more holistic."

Jackson acknowledges geography has been squeezed in the primary curriculum by literacy and numeracy and is further threatened by new initiatives to boost these subjects. However, she says she is less concerned about geography than two years ago. Teachers, she says, are more confident and willing to use geography texts to teach literacy. She also believes a significant part of citizenship can be taught through geography.

"It's about life and people in their places. It's also about sustainability and stewardship. We use geographical skills every day. How often do we pick up a map or interpret our environment? It is a very important subject and if it were lost to children it would be devastating," she says.

Miss Jackson, now a busy primary team leader for Trafford's school improvement service, did not initially set out to publish books, merely to write one for her own pupils. It was only when the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority incorporated Where in the World is Barnaby Bear as unit 5 in the scheme of work for key stage 1 and 2 geography, that the GA decided Miss Jackson should write more books to add to the first, Barnaby Bear goes to Dublin.

Barnaby is a little bear - a glove puppet in fact - who asks some very big questions about people and places, the sort of questions that a curious six-year-old would ask.

"My basic premise is that if the curriculum is interesting and fun and children feel motivated, then the success of a school flows from that.

Geography must be fun and children need to see the reason for doing it," she says.

Barnaby's questions about the natural and human worlds are intended to help children develop their reasoning and an understanding of places from real evidence. All Barnaby's journeys are based on realistic time scales. If children want to do what Barnaby does and catch the buses he catches for example, then they can. And through his travels - to the seaside, to Brittany, up a mountain - he begins to help pupils explore fundamental geographical concepts such as the interconnectedness of places, the significance of location, human and physical environments and the causes and consequences of change.

Indeed, Elaine Jackson models Barnaby's questions around the key geography questions: Where is it? What is it like? What does it feel like to be in it? How does it differ from other places? How do I get to it? Is it changing?

She has been on all the journeys with Barnaby herself as well as taken many of the photographs. Photographing the furry puppet proved to be a real crowd puller in many places.

She has also written all the activities, many on cross-curricular themes, which cover two double-page spreads at the back of every book.

All the work was done in her spare time - an hour or two snatched during weekends and evenings. But she has never viewed it as work.

She says: "It's just something I really believe in and it's been a lot of fun." The GA has now published six Barnaby big books with a seventh - Barnaby Bear in Norway - following a request from the Norwegian government, due this spring.

With each big book there are also four little books, written by Liz Lewis, a friend and former lecturer in primary geography, to explore some themes further as class readers.

So far the Barnaby series has sold 14,000 copies and the BBC has also produced two series of Barnaby Bear programmes for its Watch series and intends to run a third, all with accompanying poster packs, a key activities book, CD-Rom and video with teaching notes.

"I hope teachers and pupils are encouraged to create their own stories of their own localities with their own little creature," Jackson says.

For details about Geographical Association and BBC Barnaby publications

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