Karen Shead braves the spring showers with St Ronan's Primary pupils to discover a rich, natural teaching resource.
The plan was to visit St Ronan's Primary in Innerleithen, in the Scottish Borders, on a sunny spring day. The idea was to walk along the school's own nature trail with a group of children and be introduced to the sights along the way. However, spring days being what they are - unpredictable - what started off as a bright blue sky in the morning soon deteriorated into a grey, drizzly afternoon.
Yet even on a day like this, as you go into the woods and start to follow the trail, you quickly see the benefit of having such a rich resource on the school grounds and you soon ignore the rumble of the traffic from the road behind the woodland area.
"The small children call it the jungle," says headteacher Alastair Campbell. Walking along the path, which snakes in and out of the tall trees, it is easy to see why.
Being careful not to slip on the dampened leaves and trying to find shelter from the rain under the branches of the trees, I see several bird-and bat-boxes, a seating area and variety of flora and fauna.
"We are very lucky that we have this on our doorstep and that is why, about 10 years ago, we decided to capitalise on it," explains Mr Campbell. "We thought it would lend itself as a teaching area for the whole school from nursery right through to Primary 7."
Four years ago, staff decided to turn the trail into an even more useful resource by creating an educational pack which would enable teachers to carry out a variety of more structured activities.
Several agencies helped construct the trail. Scottish Natural Heritage provided a grant which contributed to the production of a hardwood seating area around an ancient beech, an Entrust grant paid for the installation of steps to improve access to the seating area as well as bulbs and wildflowers, a Scottish Wildlife Trust conservation team re-established the path and the Scottish Borders Council Ranger Service provided bird-and bat-boxes.
The education pack, which has been a few years in the making, has also received support from different agencies, including the Borders Forest Trust and Bridging the Borders.
Principal teacher Amanda Findlay, who co-ordinated the pack, explains how the material was put together.
"We used a two-pronged approach. We went through materials in the whole school and looked at what areas of the environmental curriculum needed supporting," she says. "We also asked teachers to look at how they could use the nature trail to fit in with the curriculum, for example, storytelling or art, and we came up with something each month."
This information was passed on to Dave Warburton, a recently retired outdoor education adviser in the Borders, who wrote the materials, which were then taken back to the staff for feedback.
The final version, which has been professionally produced, is weighty and bursting with ideas that can be adapted for other schools too.
The pack, entitled St Ronan's Primary School Nature Trail: Resources to support the 5-14 environmental studies curriculum, contains five sections, on plants, minibeasts, materials, conservation and people and places, and an accompanying CD-Rom. Each section has several ideas for activities in and out of the classroom. The worksheets clearly label the attainment targets and learning outcomes. There are also maps of the school grounds and nature trail area, a key to the trees and leaves, and computer slideshows relating to woodlands.
"The education pack is a big plus point for teachers," says Mrs Findlay.
"It gives those who need it more confidence to teach the environmental studies part of the curriculum. It meets the needs of teachers and benefits the kids."
The wildlife area and the pack have a high profile in the school's curriculum, says Mr Campbell. "The children have an increased respect and greater awareness of their environment. All of the classes use the area and we can tell they are protective of it. If anybody spoils it in any way, they're up in arms about it."
Each class has a dedicated session on the nature trail set aside for them every other month, so they use it six times a year, but they are free to use it more often than this.
"It's an alternative environment to the classroom," says Mrs Findlay. "On a nice afternoon a teacher can say 'Let's go and tell a story around the tree'."
As well as using the nature trail and accompanying materials in their own school, Mr Campbell is keen to offer opportunities to other schools and organisations.
"The materials can be adapted to any school and we would allow other schools to come along and use our trail," he says. "We could make handout materials from the pack beforehand for preparation, and they could come in as a class and give us feedback. The very nature of the project lends itself to being ongoing."
St Ronan's Primary, Innerleithen, tel 01896 830349