If you go down to the woods...
Julie Morrice reports.
Autumn is the time when primary school nature tables overflow with fiery coloured leaves, conkers and beech masts, when squirrels and hedgehogs claw their way into the curriculum and when a windy walk in the woods appeals to everyone.
It is small wonder that the Scottish Borders Treefest Bus has proved such a hit with primary schools. The yellow van is quite ordinary on the outside, but inside it is full of information and activities relating to woodlands.
"Getting out into the woods always brings up problems with staffing and transport," says Fiona Crouch, of Borders council. "That's why schools like the bus so much. We just turn up."
The bus made its first two-week tour of schools in March, visited more in July and has just completed another fortnight tour. In all, the bus has visited 50 schools in the widespread communities of the Borders in the six weeks.
"I didn't anticipate it would be so popular," admits Miss Crouch, who suggested the bus and has pieced together staff and funding from organisations involved in forestry in Scotland to bring schools not only materials and activities but also expertise in unusual corners of woodsmanship.
The expert visiting Langlee Primary in Galashiels is Paul Henry, a tree surgeon by profession who now spends much of his time building and promoting geodesic domes. The P5 and P6 pupils have a perfect day for dome construction. Armed with lengths of coppiced ash and a pile of blue plastic rings cut from old water pipe, a group of 10 pupils prepares to start building in the sunshine.
"This is a completely eco-friendly building," Mr Henry tells them. "The wood is from a sustainable source and the water pipe is recycled."
He arranges the children, each holding an ash pole, into a circle before they lay their poles end on end and slot them into blue rings. This is the base of the dome. More poles are fitted into the blue rings and the polygons which make up the dome begin to take shape.
"It's a very magical construction," he says. "If you look at cells through a microscope you'll see that some are a very similar shape. These shapes are the building blocks of the universe."
While the group continues dome building, another has gone off into the school grounds investigating the trees and wildlife that live alongside them.
"Some schools don't have anything," says Nik Williamson, of the Borders Forest Trust. "We have been reduced to looking at little bits of greenery that have managed to grow through tarmac."
The playground at Langlee Primary is edged with a recently-planted alphabet of trees, starting with ash and running through to willow. Armed with cards showing leaf shape, bark texture, flowers and fruit, the children dash around identifying trees, discovering that their seeds come in interesting cases and some have thorns.
Inside the bus, a third group of pupils is learning about woodland habitats and the uses of wood. Most popular is the array of "feely boxes", which hide all sorts of surprises, such as pine cones, peach nuts, pieces of bark and fur. Then the children are asked to identify the tree origins of a range of items in a basket. A book, an apple, a toilet roll and an orange are all correctly sourced; then out comes a bar of chocolate. "That's oot o' a shop," comes the rapid response.
Meanwhile the dome is nearing completion. "There's something very appealing about the shape, about being inside even without a cover over it. It appeals to our spiritual side," says Mr Henry.
The children are delighted with their handiwork and the fact that a pile of poles can so quickly and easily become the structure of a living space.
"I've lived in one of these all winter," says Mr Henry. "It doesn't need any tent pegs or anything fixing it to the ground. The higher the wind, the more it is pressed into the ground and the more secure you feel."
P5P6 teacher Mary Barker is also delighted with the Treefest Bus visit. "They've done an amazing amount in an hour," she says. "We'll be going on to do the rainforest next term and this is giving them a wonderful grounding."
* The Forestry Commission website gives details of woodland related classroom resources. See www.forestry.gov.uk then click on Scotland, learning, treetrunkFor details of events e-mail the commission's environmental education adviser, firstname.lastname@example.org