If you go down to the woods today . . .
A human snake is winding its way through the trees, the blindfolds provided by Virgin Atlantic adding a surreal touch to the procession. But each of the 25 children from Year 2 of Longwick Church of England Combined School, Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire, is absorbed in the exercise, carefully holding the shoulders of the one in front, gingerly treading, first through leaf mould, next over a log.
The silence of their deep concentration is broken only by the occasional crackling of twigs underfoot. At the front is Steve Crosby, woodlands manager of the Wycombe District Council Ranger Service. This is one of several exercises to help the children get the feel and texture of the wood using all their senses. Blindfolds off. "What could you feel?" asks Steve. "Crunchy leaves," says Fran. "And mud," adds Ashley.
Out of the woods and briefly into a meadow, the children eagerly point out their school at the bottom of the hill to their teacher, Rona Gledhill. The scene is a neat example of community environmental education in action. We are at Brush Hill, a new woodland site bought with cash from two local companies - Leo Pharmaceuticals and Orange - in partnership with Wycombe District Council.
Ranger lan Butterfield asks me to glue up some pieces of card and explains the importance of involving local schools in the Wycombe Woods Strategy. "We have cut vandalism, and the children grow up to value the forest." And the cards? The children are sent off to make mosaics of natural colour by sticking grasses and leaves on to them.
The next exercise involves sight. Steve has hidden some objects in the wood. The children are led past them. "How many objects did you see?" asks Steve. "Five . . . seven . . . 19," come the replies. "Well let's go back and look more carefully," says Steve. I'm amazed to find I missed six objects.
Ears next. The children are sent off to find a quiet spot and draw what they hear. Back come pictures of birds, trees, leaves - and cars.
Blindfolds back on for Meet a Tree. Children are blindfolded and led to a tree, which they feel before being led away. When the blindfold is removed can they recognise their own tree by sight alone?
Next, Steve hands out feely bags to groups of five. Each group has a word written on a card to be guessed by the other groups. They have to find two clues in the wood - one that fits the description and one which is its opposite. One group gets the word "light". They manage to find a feather, and cart back a huge fallen branch to illustrate its counterpart. Much to their delight the others guess their word.
For the final activity, Ian produces a large bottle of pink liquid. He pours it into a cup for each child. "I want you to make a woodland cocktail," he explains. "You can make a nice smelling perfume or a horrible potion. But don't drink it - and don't put any dog pooh in it," he adds, remembering the efforts of a previous group.
In an age of learning outcomes and targets, Steve and Ian's approach is refreshing. There was no relentless pushing of a message, no worksheets, no injunction not to litter. Rather, a more subtle approach was taken - an atmosphere created in which the forest could speak for itself, for the children to tune into its voice and to find their own meanings.
John Tribe is director of TOURFOR, a Buckinghamshire CollegeEuropean Union LIFE project to promote sustainable co-development of tourism and forestry (web site: www.buckscol.ac.uk)