Fanatical about the fantastical

23rd September 2011 at 01:00
If you go down to the woods today, you're in for an enchanting partnership between an independent and a state school - and a wealth of cross-curricular activities, writes Raymond Ross

I'm crouched down on my hunkers in the bright autumn sunshine, talking to a group of P3 pupils, when a tiny insect lands on the back of my hand. It's black or dark brown, with red or orange spots. It's so tiny it's difficult to make out.

"I think that might be a ladybird," I say hopefully.

Looking at it carefully, one of the P3 girls says: "It could be a leopard one. It can bite and give you spots."

I shake my hand gently and off it flies, just as a wee hand flourishes a leafy branch before me.

"Look!" says this other pupil proudly. "They're caterpillar eggs on the leaves. Our caterpillar eggs!"

We're in the Fantastical Forest, a new outdoor classroom in the grounds of St George's School for Girls in Edinburgh. A growing project, in every sense, the forest is the result of a partnership between this independent school and Edinburgh City's Gylemuir Primary, which was launched last September.

"What started as a partnership idea between our nursery and Gylemuir's, swiftly developed into an all-singing, all-dancing cross-curricular activity that continues to give pleasure and learning opportunities months after the first sod was dug in February," says St George's headteacher, Anne Everest.

Together the schools made a successful bid for partnership support for Curriculum for Excellence and received pound;1,000 each to help develop their creative approach to outdoor and environmental education.

"We were brought together by Lesley McDowall, Edinburgh's quality information officer for early years, as she thought our approach to creating inspiring spaces - and to creativity and environmental education in general - would meet with those of St George's," says Gylemuir head Elizabeth Gordon.

"An interdisciplinary approach to environmental education was well established here. We have always, for example, made extensive use of the woods on Corstorphine Hill as a natural learning environment," she says.

"Since last September, we have had many joint meetings with St George's, including inviting their nursery pupils and parents here. We introduced them to green screen technology, for instance, showing them how to create background forest imagery for video presentation.

"There's no doubt our children and teachers have gained a lot from the partnership," says Mrs Gordon.

Sue Hay, head of St George's junior school, says: "Gylemuir had already established their forest area and there was no doubt they could help us, especially as both schools took a holistic approach to Curriculum for Excellence.

"Gylemuir has followed a Storyline approach to developing their outdoor space, where the children create a hypothesis about an elf and his hierarchy of needs, like shelter and food. Sharing a similar pedagogy, and learning from their example, we decided to develop our own outdoor learning space, and so we annexed a piece of land at the side of the PE hall," she says.

The size of a large garden, the space was designed, landscaped and planted by junior and nursery pupils working with Earth Calling, an established environmental education organisation that had previously worked with Gylemuir.

"Gylemuir introduced us to Earth Calling, who are a knowledgeable, passionate team who really brought ideas about wildlife and the environment alive for our pupils, with whom they consulted at every stage, taking their ideas forward and making them `effective contributors'," says Mrs Hay.

It took three days, involving all junior school pupils, to lay the foundations of the forest, planting native Scottish trees to complement the mature ones already established, making willow domes and weaving withies (willow wands) which grow and change with the seasons.

The two schools, who made a joint presentation at the Scottish Learning Festival on Wednesday this week, are now in the process of developing their partnership through different kinds of links.

"Gylemuir are interested in our nursery French programme, a programme we have developed ourselves, and we are interested in how Gylemuir uses animation and film technology as we hope to adopt a similar approach in our primary school. Continuing the partnership and building on the relationship we've established is very important to both schools," says Liz Stewart, head of nursery.

Even from the beginning of the project, the cross-curricular activities were apparent. Science and environmental education were brought to the fore with a study on trees and leaf recognition, and the planting of native trees and learning the folklore attached to them. Technology involved photography, videoing and recording interviews with the Earth Calling team.

Literacy and numeracy came into the planning of storytelling sessions and the pupil decisions about how to raise and spend further funding.

And central to it all was art: drawing maps, plans and designs; making land art, using foliage; using withies to make "dreamcatchers" to hang from the trees; sketching and chalking on stone.

"It's also enterprise education at its best," says Mrs Hay. "The budget was handled by the P5 pupil council who kept the accounts in an account book entitled `Money Grows on Trees'.

"They got parents to sponsor trees as well and they made a presentation to the school's futures group to secure a little more funding for seating and a pebble bed to counteract the problem of mud. They really helped lead the project," she says.

Mrs Stewart agrees. "Children are natural entrepreneurs and as teachers it's our job to help them. We're surrounded by resources that children see the potential in, that we don't necessarily see. We have to scaffold their ideas."

For Mrs Stewart, the Fantastical Forest is a natural growth in a more traditional way as well. "The idea of a nature garden has been part of nursery philosophy since at least Froebel and we can look on our forest as a whole-school extension of that idea. Not only does using this natural space help finely tune pupils' observational skills by taking them back to nature, it also provides a healthy and necessary balance to virtual learning," she says.

The Fantastical Forest is a whole-school project which, following Gylemuir, they hope will help them to become a Green Flag eco-school. Secondary pupils at St George's performed Pyramus and Thisbe (Shakespeare's play within the play A Midsummer Night's Dream) in the Fantastical Forest, while all the school's art students were involved in helping to create artwork for the outdoor space.

There are plans to erect a tepee here as well, where the senior school student council (official title the "Pow Wow") can meet and where storytelling sessions and mini-dramas can take place.

The new resource has also energised parents. "It makes parents more aware of Curriculum for Excellence, as they can see it coming together in the forest project. They can see that pupils' learning doesn't just happen indoors and they have helped by sponsoring trees," says Mrs Hay.

Indeed, so enthusiastic is the school community that some wag has even nicknamed the outdoor classroom the "Fanatical Forest".

St George's did have previous experience in woodland matters. They had already designated a Wild Wood area in the school grounds, which is used for outdoor drama productions, school barbecues and archaeological digs.

"Inspired by the Roman remains at Cramond, we often set up archaeological excavations in the Wild Wood area, where older pupils will `plant' Roman artefacts for our younger girls to discover," explains Mrs Hay. "As with the Fantastical Forest, our approach is child-centred. Pupils came up with the idea and the name of "Fantastical Forest" and their involvement was central to the point that they even helped carry out the risk assessment. You could say the whole school community, parents, pupils and teachers, are fanatical about the fantastical."

`Outside is good'

Phoebe Melville, P3 pupil, St George's School for Girls:

The Fantastical Forest is where we look after our habitat to help other habitats. We take care of nature.

The best thing is to get to plant things like our beans. Outside is good. You don't need walls to keep warm. We come out for a few minutes even if it's very cold.

You don't need a classroom to learn things. I like reading stories outside. There's a dragon asleep under there (a willow dome) that we tell stories about. It's made of stone. It's a nice dragon.

We've got baby trees we're going to watch growing. We watch our birds. They'll start to nest. We could put up more bird houses maybe. There'll be squirrels too.

The Fantastical Forest is really nice. We do exciting things like finding bugs.

`Art does not have to hang in galleries or classrooms'

Sarah Knox, art specialist, St George's School for Girls:

From an art perspective, the pivotal moment for us was the P5 visit to Jupiter Artland on the western fringes of Edinburgh, which features work in situ by leading sculptors and land artists.

The pupils had hands-on workshops there and it was inspiring for them, as it helped them to appreciate and understand how to work in and with a landscape.

In fact, you could say that in their initial planning, sketching and designing, the pupils leant that artwork is not necessarily put in a place but that it can be that place.

As a result they knew that the Fantastical Forest art they were creating had to be site-specific and this involved a lot of problem solving - how to make willow domes and dreamcatchers which would not only delight, but also survive the weather as far as possible.

Here they also learnt that art can be ephemeral, that it can disappear even though recorded by photograph or video, and that art does not have to hang in galleries or on classroom walls.

Working with Earth Calling really sparked the pupils. It is always good for them to work with outside professionals to get them to look beyond the school walls and gain that wider perspective.

The art philosophy of the Fantastical Forest is to encourage the pupils to go out and observe nature first-hand, so that it comes alive for them. It's wonderful to teach in an outside classroom and to watch the pupils' ideas for making art from stones or logs or leaves come to fruition.

It liberates the pupils' imaginations and their creativity, and the fact it's a whole-school resource is just great. I can take a senior group there and meet with and work alongside a nursery group doing their own thing.

Our next plan here is to design, carve and erect a totem pole, which we've decided should use Celtic motifs with a lot of zoomorphic images. And we still have that blank canvas - the side wall of the PE hall.

I think we'll want to put climbing plants there, but we're also working on ideas for a mural.

There's no finality to the resource. There are always possibilities, changes and developments to challenge the imagination.

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