Curriculum - Dip into nature

25th September 2009 at 01:00
Hands-on learning, fresh air and fewer pennies - educational visits in the UK have never looked more attractive. Friederike Heine reports

Despite the great strides forward made by virtual learning environments and services such as Google Earth, it's as vital as ever to take pupils outdoors as part of their overall education and development.

But many teachers have concerns about the amount of paperwork involved in getting them off the ground. More than just fulfilling a curriculum learning outcome, teachers must take into consideration a number of factors, including budgets, risk assessment and providing for children with special educational needs.

What's more, schools are on an even tighter budget due to the economic downturn, says Craig Hunter, director at UK School Trips. "From a lot of the incoming queries, price currently is a major factor in finding a suitable venue because of the current economic climate. Although teachers are going on more school trips than ever before, they are looking for the best possible value and to keep the price of each trip down."

However, there is a positive side to this. "This is fabulous for our economy because it means that there are a lot more UK-based trips in England, Scotland and Wales," says Mr Hunter. "They are a lot more cost effective than trips abroad and offer some fabulous experiences and learning opportunities."

Below is a list of potential venues across England, Scotland and Wales, plus lesson ideas for when you're back in the classroom.


Rosliston Forestry Centre - Derbyshire

Located at the heart of the National Forest, Rosliston Forestry Centre provides an exciting outdoor learning experience for children. The staff at Rosliston will accompany groups through the centre's woodlands and meadows, while introducing children to the local wildlife, which includes kingfishers, owls and waterfowl.

Rosliston Forestry Centre offers curriculum-linked activities, based on exploration and investigation in its woods and meadows. The team works across the age range from early years to secondary, and attempts to shape environmental education in South Derbyshire.

"Prior to a visit, we discuss the desired learning outcomes with teachers and tailor our programmes accordingly," says Kate Allies, who runs the environmental education project at Rosliston.

"Upon arrival, we lead the pupils in activities such as pond-dipping and minibeast hunting. Afterwards, we use educational tools such as art, role play and music to reinforce the desired learning outcomes."

According to Ms Allies, Rosliston Forestry Centre's ethos is that having fun facilitates learning, especially at primary level. "We try to create a fun environment for children so that they retain what they have learnt," she says. "We try to appeal to a range of different learning styles."

LESSON IDEA: Pupils can explore their own school grounds using the basic skills that they have acquired during their visit. Alternatively, teachers can use the Woodlands Trust's Nature Detectives Site to create their own, customised worksheets.

Find out more at:

Moseley Old Hall - Wolverhampton

The Moseley Old Hall is an Elizabethan House, which has recently gained a Sandford Award for excellence in Heritage Education, and is famous for its associations with Charles II. The Tudor and Stuart periods are brought to life through hands-on activities, storytelling and artefact handling.

"Moseley Old Hall played a part in our national heritage through its role in hiding the fugitive Charles II following his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651," says Stephanie Twilley, learning officer at Moseley Old Hall.

"Our programme enables children to explore the event by dressing up and role playing the story at key stage 2 and by examining source material such as diary extracts at key stage 3."

There are a range of non-curriculum specific activities too. "Pupils can discover what life was like in Tudor times by having a go at baking, spinning, setting the table, considering hygiene and cures, making pomanders, dancing or using quills," she says.

"They can take part in pike drill, play with Tudor toys and games and handle domestic artefacts. On our living history days all trust staff and volunteers are costumed, and schoolchildren and staff are invited to wear period costume and activities are delivered as if in the past."

An exhibition in the barn tells the story of the king's dramatic escape from Cromwell's troops. The garden has a variety of herbs and plants and was recreated in 17th-century style with a formal knot garden, arbour and nut walk. There is also an extensive outreach facility.

LESSON IDEA: Pupils at key stage 2 history could be encouraged to discuss the differences between the lives of rich and poor people in Tudor times, following on from what they will have experienced during their visit.

Find out more at:

The Holocaust Centre - Nottinghamshire

A visit to the Holocaust Centre can provide children with an enlightening learning experience, not only in relation to the holocaust itself, but also about the dangers of extremism, divided communities and racism. The educational staff use the centre's facilities to draw attention to these issues by looking at the history and implications of the holocaust.

The Holocaust Centre offers two exhibitions, one designed for children of nine and above, and one for key stages 3 and 4. Educational programmes are designed to tackle discrimination, social isolation and persecution and aim to challenge present attitudes and values, so may fit into discussions in PSHE as well as history.

Pupils will be given an introductory talk, followed by a tour of the exhibition and a stroll through the memorial garden. They will then have the chance to speak to a survivor of the Holocaust.

"After the session, we will introduce a contemporary issue such as genocide or bullying," says Chantelle Meckenstock, education projects officer. "It is important for children to understand what they can do as individuals in a democratic society to make sure that history will not repeat itself."

LESSON IDEA: As a follow-up lesson, teachers could encourage students to discuss the Rwandan genocide. For this purpose, teachers could download sound files from Holocaust Centre's website History Speaks to listen to interviews with survivors.

Find out more at:


Butterfly House - Aberystwyth

With its combination of plants and insects, the butterfly house recreates a range of insects' natural habitats. This, along with its educational tours conducted by professional educational staff, guarantees an interesting experience for pupils and teachers. According to Neil Gale, a rainforest ecologist who has spent three years working in or visiting rainforests in the Far East, South America and West Africa, the tour complements the national curriculum in science and biology.

"We go over various topics including the insect life cycle, classification, and living environment that fit in with key stage 1 and 2 curricula," explains Mr Gale.

"In the reception room, we have a good collection of insects, such as giant beetles, mantids and stick insects. Weather permitting we go out in the butterfly garden to do a bug hunt. We also do tours on butterfly gardening, rain forests and how we can help them."

The hothouse atmosphere and giant foliage plants give a first-hand introduction to a tropical rainforest environment. "The best place to learn about biology is out in nature," says Dr Gale. "The heat and humidity and giant banana leaves set the scene for learning about rain forests and how they work."

More advanced tours can be tailored to a special theme such as rainforests, conservation, evolution and ecology. Tours are available in Welsh for group sizes up to 15 pupils.

LESSON IDEA: Pupils of key stages 1 and 2 could write and illustrate a diary of the insect life cycle with the help of the education packs provided by the Butterfly House.

Find out more at:

Anglesey Sea Zoo - Isle of Anglesey

The Anglesey Sea Zoo is the largest marine aquarium in Wales with more than 150 species on display. The Zoo has recreated the habitats from around the British coastline, from a reef covered in invertebrates to life in the open ocean with a big fish kelp forest full of sea bass and sharks. The venue also houses a lobster hatchery and a replica shipwreck brimming with conger eels.

Anglesey Sea Zoo adjusts its programmes to meet the specific needs of each group. Pupils will learn about conservation work and have a guided tour with marine biologists. For key stages 1 to 4, there are beach safaris exploring the coastline, and interactive talks with marine biological staff.

"The activities vary from beach safari rock pool rummages to specialised guided tours, presentations and demonstrations and the experience of interacting with a diver underwater," says managing partner Frankie Hobro. "We provide an opportunity to see marine life close-up, teaching interesting facts about even well known animals, and we also have some rare species, such the elusive British short-snouted seahorse which is part of our breeding and conservation research programmes."

LESSON IDEA: A follow-up lesson for secondary pupils could consist of an introduction to the breeding and conservation programmes that ensure a sustainable future for marine animals locally and further afield. Pupils could learn about the problems faced by the world's oceans and their inhabitants today, how the situation has changed, and what is being done to help.

Find out more at:

The Spaceguard Centre - Powys

As well as its dedication to detecting earth-crossing asteroids and protecting our planet from potentially catastrophic collisions, the Spaceguard Centre is involved in UK-wide science education.

"Our educational work ranks very highly on our list of priorities," says Jay Tate, director at the Spaceguard Centre. "We offer observing sessions for the children, and aim to give them a hands-on experience of practical astronomy, as well as catering to the teacher's desired learning outcomes."

"We cater to both primary and secondary level," says Mr Tate. "All tours will be tailored to the individual group. Primary pupils will be accompanied through our planetarium and see a number of demonstrations including models of the solar systems and of an eclipse. Secondary school groups will learn about planetary formation and meteorites."

The centre is working on putting together some worksheets to appear on its website in due course. "However, eight years of experience has shown us that teachers know what they are doing and have strong ideas about which curricular outcomes they want to achieve for their pupils," says Mr Tate.

LESSON IDEA: A primary science lesson could involve building a miniature solar system, followed by individual mini-presentations on a planet of their choice.

Find out more at:


Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle may be Scotland's second-most-visited tourist attraction, but there are still plenty of learning experiences to be had. Although the garrison left in the 1920s, there is still a military presence at the Castle, largely ceremonial and administrative, and including a number of regimental museums.

"The Edinburgh Castle caters to a range of age groups," says Susanne Stewart of the castle's education unit. "A group of primary pupils will be led on a tour of the royal castle, and then be transformed into kings and queens by making their own crowns and changing into majestic period costume."

According to Ms Stewart, they can also take part in a range of educational activities that will tie into their knowledge of Scottish history. This will include the Jacobites, the Wars of Independence and Mary Queen of Scots.

Secondary pupils can take part in a range of activities, such as creative writing workshops and higher art portfolio studies, as well as history-related workshops relating to the Wars of Independence and the First World War.

All visitors to the castle can join a guided tour free of charge. The Honours of Scotland - the nation's crown jewels - are popular with pupils of all ages. The crown, sceptre and sword of state are the oldest royal regalia in the United Kingdom.

LESSON IDEA: After hearing stories of sieges, prisoners and hidden treasure, and exploring real archaeological artefacts and replica medieval objects, pupils could create their own stories using the castle as an inspirational backdrop.

Find out more at:

Abernethy Centre - Nethybridge

Set against an idyllic backdrop of parkland and forest, the Abernethy Centre offers a range of indoor and outdoor activities including a residential ski weekend.

If there is no snow, the venue offers a dry ski slope, as well as many other sports facilities, such as canoeing, abseiling, archery, orienteering and sailing. All activities are appropriate to the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence.

"Following each activity, children will discuss their experience in a group," says Lorimer Gray, executive director at the Abernethy Centre. "They will also be encouraged to keep a diary during their stay. This will aid teachers during follow-up lessons. The Abernethy Centre is a Christian institution and can therefore provide some useful links to religious education. The outdoor element also ties in with environmental education."

Abernethy Centre has a range of facilities - a sports centre with indoor swimming pool, sports hall, squash court and games room. There is also an indoor climbing wall, an artificial ski slope for the summer months and a tennis court. There are three timeshare self-catering lodges on site.

LESSON IDEA: Teachers could encourage children to discuss their diary entries in small groups and to draw conclusions about how the educational visit improved their ability to function as a team.

Find out more at:

Fort George

If you wish to provide your pupils with a realistic historic experience, Fort George may be the ideal destination. The 18th-century fortress situated near Inverness was built in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising in 1745, and welcomes school groups of all ages.

Pupils will receive a tour of the fort by a costumed guide who is dressed as the wife of a foot soldier. They will learn about how she cares for her family, feeding them on meagre rations, and supplements her income by preparing munitions cartridges.

In order to appreciate the role of common highland women in the 18th century and understand daily life, children will have the opportunity to engage in role play by dressing in period costume, preparing a family meal, doing the washing and making cartridges that will be loaded into cartridge bags. While the central theme will be on the role of women in the fort, pupils will also get an insight into children's lives.

"Fort George is the only ancient monument in Scotland still functioning as a working army barracks as well as welcoming visitors," says Lorraine MacDonald, steward at Fort George.

"The Regimental Museum of the Queen's Own Highlanders is found at the property, while dolphins can often be seen from the ramparts. There is an events programme and education packs can be sent to teachers prior to their visit."

LESSON IDEA: In a follow-up lesson, the group could discuss the role of women during the Jacobite Risings and compare it with life for their contemporary counterparts.

Find out more at:


Teachers who fail to plan and organise trips properly place themselves at risk of criminal action and are likely to be in breach of their professional duty. The Department for Children, Schools and Families has published Out and About Guidance, which urges schools to consider the following:

1. Every visit should have stated objectives. Set out what pupils are going to take away from this experience.

2. Always have a plan B - What arrangements do you have in place if the river is running too high for your kayaking expedition?

3. Make sure you have contingencies in place in relation to the activity itself, your plan B, travel arrangements, staff and any potential medical hazards.

4. Write to parents with your plan for the trip. Set out how you have assessed and planned for the risks. This allows parents to make informed decisions about their child's participation. For adventure and residential activities it is good practice to invite parents to a meeting so they can hear from you about the proposed activities.

5. Obtain relevant medical information and consents. Ask questions where appropriate. For example, a child susceptible to asthma could have an attack induced by jumping into cold water. If you know about this in advance, you can plan for it.

6. Make sure you are competent to organise the trip. The DfES supplements to Health Safety of Pupils on Educational Visits July 2002 (available from contain helpful advice on arrangements for assessing and ensuring competence.

7. On the trip make sure all supervising adults have at least two contact numbers for families or carers of each child in case of emergencies, and supervisors have each other's mobile numbers.

8. Supervision is 247. Take into account the nature of the environment, the maturity of children and any disabilities of staff, volunteers or pupils.

9. During the planning process, the trip leader should be regularly monitored to check compliance with the precautions identified in risk assessments.

10. After the trip it is good practice to review what went well, and what could have been handled better. The aim should be to achieve continuous improvement.

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