Going down to the wire

8th July 2011 at 01:00
To mark the end of their Comenius Healthy Living Project, children and teachers from around the world travelled to Aberdeen and swung into action, as Jean McLeish reports

Our fish and chips and men in skirts are just some of the highlights for schoolchildren and teachers visiting Scotland from countries across Europe.

Eighty pupils and teachers from schools in Latvia, Spain, Norway, the Netherlands and England marked the end of their Comenius Healthy Living Project with a trip to Kirkhill School in Aberdeen.

They are having an action-packed few days with ceilidhs and kayaking, swinging through the tree tops on high-wires in the forest and hill walking. Primary and secondary school children have researched healthy eating, exercise and lifestyle, and teachers say the mix of young people across the age spectrum has worked out well.

This morning the Kirkhill primary pupils have been preparing an international lunch with dishes from their guests' countries. There is onion soup from Norway, Spanish-style chicken and chorizo stew, Latvian apple pie and Dutch and English cheeses served with Scottish oatcakes.

Vast, long tables have been set out at the local church hall and Aberdeen's Lord Provost is among the guests. Headteacher Lorraine Napier appears happy and calm, as the children serve the food while the guests relax and chat.

Later, outside the hall, Mrs Napier introduces one of her secret weapons: "This is Gary, my main man. Gary is my events organiser," she says, as a smiling 12-year-old is introduced.

"He is absolutely indispensable. You're brilliant, aren't you?" she says to Gary, who is blushing at all this attention.

"I set up assembly and if there is an event like Pink Day, I'll sort all that out," he explains. "Today I've helped Miss Noble do a bit of the cooking in the kitchen. I have done cooking before with my granda - stovies, Sunday dinner," says Gary.

Inside, there is an international exhibition of work by pupils from the nine schools involved in this Comenius Healthy Living Project, supported by the North Sea Commission and aimed at children living in coastal communities. As the Lord Provost is shown round, groups of children are putting finishing touches to their art work.

This Comenius Project started two years ago and children have been working collaboratively with partner schools on the healthy lifestyle theme, reflecting on their own behaviour and developing new healthy strategies. Some, like P7 Tayler Stewart, 11, from Kirkhill School have visited partner countries.

"I went to Latvia last year - it was great fun," says Tayler. Small P7 groups from this school went to Latvia twice and also visited Spain and Norway.

Some Aberdeen pupils have never travelled overseas before and their teachers have been keen for as many children as possible to benefit from the opportunity. "It's really a privilege for us to be able to travel with them the first time some of them have been on a plane," says Kirkhill's depute head, Shona Milne.

Some journeys became unexpected adventures - they were stranded in Spain because of the Icelandic ash cloud and had to fly home via Paris, then get the ferry at Calais and bus from Dover to Aberdeen.

Their Spanish hosts extended their wonderful, generous hospitality and the nine children and three adults were met by the local papers when their bus finally arrived back in Aberdeen. When they were asked what they missed most about home the children had no hesitation: "mince and tatties".

Their headteacher remembers a personal highlight in Latvia, where winter snows are waist high in the streets. There are no school closures for snow here - life goes on. "You just walk and clear paths; they have great fun," says Lorraine Napier.

During their visits to Latvia, Aberdeen pupils visited the Winter Olympics resort and the National Bobsleigh Training Ground. "They didn't tell me I was going on the bobsleigh until I was actually in it," says Mrs Napier. "I thought it was a practice shot, but no - it was the real thing, so I screamed from the moment I took off until it got to the bottom."

The idea behind this project is that each school develops 10 recommendations for healthy living, which they can circulate to other children and promote within their wider communities. "Without burgers you will walk further and live longer," reads one of the posters created by the I.E.S. Numero Uno School in Xabia, in south-east Spain.

"This has been a perfect idea because it covers healthy living, food, sports activities and learning," says Eugenia Iborra from the I.E.S. school. "This is a good mixture and students have the opportunity to mix with students from other countries and see that they have the same problems," says Mrs Iborra, who is supervising children kayaking after lunch on the Inchgarth reservoir, on the outskirts of Aberdeen.

Despite the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet, Spanish children face similar problems to Scottish pupils. "Research has shown that in schools there is more obesity nowadays," says Mrs Iborra, who teaches English and German.

Schools are responding by encouraging children to eat more fruit and have more active lifestyles. "I was healthier than my students because my mother was at home and cooked for the family and didn't buy frozen food and cook in the microwave.

"We had traditional food, but nowadays most of the families have both men and women working, so some of them have to work with something already cooked. It is not healthy because they have fats and preservatives. We had lovely bread in Spain and now you have to go to special places because the bread is already baked and frozen," says Mrs Iborra, who cooks from scratch at home herself every evening.

Nearby, two teenagers from Methwold High in Norfolk are trying out kayaking for the first time. "Don't laugh at us if we go in," says 16- year-old Victoria Lavender.

"We have been on loads of trips - it has been brilliant fun," she says. "I went to Latvia, Holland and now Aberdeen, and we hosted when they came to us as well. "We made some good friends over in Holland and we are hoping to go back in October off our own back," she says.

Her friend, Jessica Smith, 16, says: "I have been to Latvia and I have come here. We have been doing a range of activities about healthy living - you have to live how they live and eat the same food. It has been good and we have made friends."

This afternoon, children have the option of a range of activities and some of the Latvian pupils are off golfing.

"In every country, we learn one new sport. Here my children have never played golf - it's not a Latvian sport," says Aiva Leitane, an English teacher at Tume Secondary in Latvia, who is with a group of six pupils and three teachers.

Some of her more adventurous pupils are checking out a new attraction, Go Ape, recently opened in the forest at Crathes Castle, near Banchory. This is a course of tree-top high wires with challenging crossings using ladders, walkways, tunnels and zip wires.

It is a perfect location for young people who want to let off steam and face new challenges - although not if you are afraid of heights. The visitors are enjoying it enormously. "It's fun, it's good, it's high," says one of her pupils, Eduirs Lobanovs, 17.

He admits it is just a little bit scary and stops for a breather to talk about his Scottish visit. "We like the Scottish skirt and the instrument - the bagpipes. At the first meeting there was one waiting for our group," says Eduirs, who admits politely that no, he personally would not wear a kilt.

One of the visiting teachers is watching her pupils swing through the trees from a safe position on the ground. "This girl you can see up in the tree - she is one of mine. She is kind of a tomboy and this is perfect for her. It's great, especially since we are doing healthy living," says Jannecke Erichsen from Sunde School in Stavanger, Norway.

Despite the healthy-living ethos, they have been allowed some treats - from one of Aberdeen's most popular fish and chip shops. "Traditional fish and chips - that was the best," says Mrs Erichsen.

"We have wondered how do they manage this, because we also have fish in Norway but not this tasty. So we were saying `why don't we get this? - we want it'," she laughs.

Nothing but the tooth: dental gaps exposed

Children at Kirkhill School in Aberdeen have already derived benefits from their work on healthy living.

Using a questionnaire, they compared standards of dental health between their school and a partner school in Norway.

"It would appear overall that our children were not as dental health- aware, certainly not as Norway was," says headteacher Lorraine Napier.

Children were asked how often they went to the dentist and whether they were registered with a dentist. A report from the NHS in Aberdeen had earlier highlighted dental issues among pupils at this school.

As a result, tooth brushing has been introduced to the school's breakfast club and to the nursery and P1. "I think it has done the job," says Mrs Napier.

"It has raised awareness and we have now made it part of our induction process: during interviews with parents when they are coming into nursery, we ask if they are registered with a dentist and give them a list of dentists."

The project has also enabled teachers to exchange ideas and good practice and implement them in their own schools. In Norway, when children explored a new theme, everyone was asked what they could contribute. Children would say what they knew about the topic, teachers would offer what they knew and parents would be asked for their input.

Once all the information was collated, children could decide how to continue their investigation. Visiting teachers saw the benefits, so at Kirkhill this collaborative approach to gathering information has been taken on board.

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