If you go down to the woodlands today

31st October 2008 at 00:00
All year groups and all subjects can learn from the great outdoors. Raymond Ross reports

It is a beautiful, sharp September morning in the Bathgate Hills. The scent of pine fills the air as the chainsaw rasps into action. A tall pine tree begins to sway and then falls, crashing to the ground.

"Have you ever been hit by a tree?" asks a pupil.

"No. You have to look after your head. It's the only one you've got," says Woodland Trust officer James Gilmore.

The P5 pupils from Dedridge Primary, Livingston, are on an expedition, courtesy of the Woodland Trust, to learn how woodland is managed. This is their "outdoor classroom" in Beecraigs Country Park and they are following the process from tree-felling and "snedding" (stripping off unwanted branches), through the "Wood-Mizer", which strips the bark and cuts the tree into planks, so that the pupils can help make a wooden bench to take back to school.

The event, which is running for a week and involves 11 West Lothian schools, is part of the Woodland Trust's BOWL (Branching Out West Lothian) project, aimed at enabling schools to use the woods as a classroom, providing inspiration for learning across the curriculum.

"We want to remove barriers to the 'outdoor classroom' to make teachers comfortable with taking classes into woodland," says Kate Walters, the trust's learning project officer. "Woodland can be used across the entire curriculum from environmental studies to poetry, maths, art and science, and I think we need to support teachers in getting out to do 'real world' learning from initial teacher training to CPD. All year groups and all subjects could be outside at some point. It enlivens teachers and pupils."

The Dedridge pupils will present an assembly where they will share their learning experience with the rest of the school, a confidence-building exercise in itself. They will also visit their local woodland to continue the process - begun today on the "Tree Trail" - of identifying different trees and their uses.

"An important part of today is to show how woodland is managed," says Ms Walters. "Naturally, with what is happening to rainforests globally, there is an emphasis on conservation, but it is important that pupils also understand that, in a working woodland, trees have to be felled for industrial purposes as well as being thinned for health and safety reasons in a country park and to allow light in for the other trees."

Once they have completed their two-seater bench, they plant an oak to leave their mark in the woods.

"It's also about sensory education," says Ms Walters. "The smells of the trees, of the pine sap in particular, the sounds of people at work with wood, the feel and weight of the wood, the digging of the soil to plant a new tree - this all adds to the experience."

To get the message of sustainable systems over is an important part of the day, James Gilmore agrees. "Pupils sit at wooden desks. They use paper. They need to make the connection to living trees - to how trees are managed and harvested, as well as how they are planted and conserved," he says.

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