I spy nature
It's Friday lunchtime at St James's CofE Primary near Stourbridge, West Midlands, and the Green Gang is having its weekly meeting. The venue is the brand new environmental classroom, transformed by the children from a dusty, redundant mobile into a bright and airy haven. "It took us ages to clear it out," says one of the boys proudly. "We cleaned the windows and furniture and threw away unwanted or old equipment."
One girl is watering the seedlings grown by Year 2, two of the boys are filling the bird feeders outside, while another eagerly tries out the new binoculars in the bird-watching corner. Colourful displays created by the children adorn the walls and a tree-dressing mobile hangs from the ceiling.
The room also has an interactive whiteboard and computer that can be used in wet weather.
"It's their special place, much of which they've created themselves," says Linda Marsden, Year 2 class teacher in charge of the Green Gang. "They really enjoy the peace and quiet away from the noisy games of the playground."
The Green Gang is a popular lunch-time club devoted to environmental activities. Different year groups are invited to become members every term on a rotational basis, and the club is normally attended by between 15 and 20 children.
The current members are from Year 6 and their enthusiasm for all things green is infectious. Some club members have special needs and can struggle academically. In the Green Gang, they feel valued and part of a team.
"We're amazed by their knowledge about the environment and wildlife," says Linda. "Being in the Green Gang gives them a chance to shine."
In the classroom, large windows look out on to the new environmental area that is taking shape outside. Recent building work meant that the previous nature area was sacrificed for staff parking. The new area, created by volunteers from the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, was funded by an pound;8,000 lottery grant and incorporates a small pond and summer meadow, a bird-feeding corner, curved hedging to enclose the area and seating for outdoor lessons in the warmer weather.
From the classroom, a girl points out the hedging plants and saplings that she and other Year 6 pupils helped plant. "It'll be great in the summer when everything's grown and we learn outside," she says.
Year groups from the school are regular visitors to The Environment Zone, an environmental education centre in Roberts Primary in Lower Gornal near Dudley, which offers fun activities to increase awareness and understanding of the environment.
"As a school, we aim to instil a love of nature and respect for the environment in the children," says Linda. "We always follow up visits to The Environment Zone with one or two focus days devoted to cross-curricular environmental activities.
"They might include artwork of minibeasts, writing a report on a pond dip or science work on life-cycles."
Plans are under way for members of the Green Gang to mentor some of the Key Stage 1 children and introduce them to the environmental activities on offer.
In planning the new environmental area, the school received guidance from the environmental education team at The Environment Zone. Assistance was also given in clarifying the assessment criteria for the Eco-Schools awards.
"Lots of schools are probably in the same position as St James's," says Linda. "We're already doing so much environmental work that we can apply for the bronze Eco-Schools award."
The new environmental area at St James's will be officially opened at the end of the spring term
CREATING YOUR OWN ENVIRONMENTAL AREA
* Start by asking for advice from your local environmental education centre - your local authority should have details. These centres can often help with identifying funding opportunities and with completing funding applications.
* Get the children involved as much as possible in creating the new area.
* Go green in the classroom.
* Use lots of recycled materials.
* Make treasure boxes for collecting natural objects from egg boxes, which can be decorated.
* Kitchen rolls are great for observing small creatures in their natural habitat.
* Create smelly palettes by collecting scents on cards.
The Environment Zone: www.ezonemag.net
BTCV (British Trust for Conservation Volunteers), the environmental conservation charity: www.btcv.org