Nick Morrison discovers that escaping the classroom for a minibeast hunt is a worthwhile lesson for both pupils and trainee teachers
Faye is crouching by the base of a lime tree, lifting up the moss and fallen leaves and peering underneath. Suddenly she gives an excited shout:
"I can see a woodlouse. I can see two woodlice. Actually four." She's really getting into it now. "They might be a family. That is the little child, that is the teenager, that is the mummy and that is the daddy."
Sam tries to get a picture, but the creatures scuttle away before he can get his camera close enough.
Faye and Sam are both eight and pupils at Gorsemoor Primary in Heath Hayes, Staffordshire. They have been studying minibeasts and are here to look at them in their natural habitats. But they are also helping the next generation of primary teachers learn to teach science outdoors.
The site is Beaudesert, on the edge of Cannock Chase, a heath with the distinction of being the smallest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in mainland Britain. Beaudesert is predominantly used as a campsite for Scouts and Guides, but for the past three years it has hosted an annual getaway for Wolverhampton University's student teachers.
Alan Blank, the university's primary science co-ordinator, forged the link.
A regular visitor to the site, he hit on using it as a way of injecting some energy into science teaching. "We did science days where pupils were supposed to go into schools and focus on science, but it didn't work very well because some schools didn't do enough science," he says. "This is a way of getting some concentrated science activities, and it also gives them the chance to work outside the classroom and see the spark this generates."
Postgraduates and students in the first and third years of the university's BEd courses spend two days at Beaudesert. The first gives them a chance to look round the site and come up with activities for the children. The second sees them work with pupils from nearby schools.
"We give them a crash course on how to recognise trees, so they can tell children the right names, talk about food chains and give them time to work out a programme," says Robert Heath, module leader. The aim, he says, is to open students' minds to the possibility of teaching outdoors. They can choose activities, and options include collecting minibeasts in jam jars buried in the ground overnight - pond-dipping, treasure hunts and identifying, measuring and ageing trees.
"So many of their placements are in the classroom, but it is a whole different ball game to come out here. The children are excited, the weather is unpredictable and you can't guarantee there is going to be a minibeast under the log," says Robert.
"You can do pretty much the entire science curriculum in class, but we're trying to say to trainees that when they get into school they can do what we're doing today with the children."
Today is the turn of the early years trainees. To tie in with the pupils'
work at school, they have been asked to concentrate on minibeasts today and wildlife habitats for the Year 5 children tomorrow.
They split into groups of four or five and, although the student-pupil ratio isn't far from 1:1, the first years admit that taking charge of a group of children in the great outdoors is a little daunting.
"It's not like a classroom. They could go wandering and it can be scary,"
says Alison Jones, 36. "It can also be unnerving if you set the traps up and nothing goes in - it's easy for the children to drift off. If you're talking about a minibeast and there is no minibeast, they may see a big stick and go and play with it." Unprompted, Scarlett, seven, tired of waiting, starts rocking a 4-foot stone lion.
Then it's off to look at predation with the help of some wool. Counting pieces of coloured wool scattered on the grass gives the children an idea of why some minibeasts are camouflaged.
It's not all minibeasts. Thanks to their crash course the previous day, the trainees are able to point out circling buzzards and holes which may lead to rabbit warrens.
"I was quite apprehensive at first, but you get the chance to see what the children are like outside school," says Laura Skipper, 22. "It's also about organising time. Whatever you have planned doesn't go exactly how you wanted so you have to think on your feet."
Safiyyah Saiyed, 19, also confesses she was nervous beforehand - and not just because she wasn't too sure how to tell her oaks from her sycamores.
"I feel more comfortable in the classroom, but it's good for us to show them and not just talk about it indoors," she says.
The university has now developed maths trails at Beaudesert, including measuring the area of a walled garden, working out the height of trees, or calculating pi based on a circular Iron Age fort. "We get the children to walk the circumference and the diameter and then get them to work out pi,"
says Alan Blank. "It's maths on a massive scale and a fantastic way to discover pi, rather than fiddling around with compasses." There are also plans to introduce design and technology, art and English sessions at the site.
The days also introduce students to the mechanics of organising school trips, such as carrying out risk assessments. Trainees remain in contact with pupils for a while, emailing follow-up work.
Going to Beaudesert has proved one of the most popular parts of the course.
"It gives the students a much better perspective on the way children learn and how you can use the environment," says Alan. "They see another side to children outside the confines of the classroom. It makes them more thoughtful teachers.
"You can't deliver spark unless you have experienced spark, and hopefully this will give them a little of that. About 95 per cent of our students teach in the West Midlands, so they will be within 40 miles of this place.
We hope they remember it and bring their children here."
It's time for the final activity: the treasure hunt. The children are charged with finding something prickly, something rough, something colourful and something beautiful. They set off, but not before Jack, seven, reveals what has been caught: "Three woodlice, a millipede and a couple of leaves."