Let's make way for the mini-beasts
Sifting through the leaves, wildlife ranger David, a P5 pupil at Cramond Primary in Edinburgh, holds up a twig. "Look at this," he says. "It's a nice wee spider."
We are surrounded by piles of leaves through which the school's wildlife rangers are carefully searching, and the tray in front of us is already teeming with minuscule life: earwigs, spiders, woodlice, weevils, rove beetles, ground beetles, mites, baby snails, slugs and even a hoverfly larva.
"It's a battleground in here," environmental educationalist Angus Eagan tells the children: "things eating the leaves and things eating the things that eat the leaves."
Aren't the children put off by all these insects and bugs? "Not me" says David. "I'm enjoying it. I just like looking about in the wild. The weevil's the best find so far. It's so small," he says.
Looking around at the other Cramond rangers busily discovering and identifying their mini-beasts, there seems only positive engagement and even a sense of wonder.
The Wildlife Ranger Service is an educational programme run by Earth Calling, a leading provider of hands-on environmental education and bespoke school grounds development in the east of Scotland.
The two basic aims of the ranger programme are for the pupils to survey and record the wildlife in their school grounds and to carry out activities that will increase the amount and diversity of wildlife in the school.
Over the past two years, Cramond Primary has transformed its grounds, working in tandem with Earth Calling and with support from the Big Lottery Community Wildlife Fund, as well as parents and local residents.
They now have an amphitheatre-style outdoor classroom, a peripheral woodland walk planted with native species, patches of wild grassland, fruit trees, willow tunnels and a pond - all improvements suggested by the pupils themselves to encourage further diversity and wildlife.
"The pupils wanted to encourage more birds," says Mr Eagan, the director of Earth Calling. "So we discussed how birds survive and what they ate before humans fed them. This led the pupils to see the need for the wildlife garden and to suggest fruit trees, dead log piles for insects, flower meadows and wild grass for seeds.
"The children always explore the ideas themselves and make their own suggestions," he says.
If the Earth Calling approach is child-centred, it is also very much hands-on, as typified by these regular ranger sessions.
"As an educational organisation, we really believe in the pupils getting a tactile experience. We want children to hold things in their hands and break down any wee fears they might have," explains Mr Eagan.
"To become a ranger, each pupil has to fill out a job application form and go through a gentle interview process. So, a child might say they have a fear of spiders but they want to overcome that - and they do."
The ranger "jobs" are held for one year and then rotated through all the applicants (usually P3 to P7), so that all interested pupils can take part at some point. This also allows the school to build up a record of what is going on in their grounds over a period of years and what further improvements they might like to see.
"We are also very much about celebrating the local environment, what's on the pupils' doorsteps, and so we also explore local woods and walks to show them deer, badgers, foxes and so on," says Mr Eagan.
"As an environmental teacher, I believe that children should know what an oak and an acorn are, what the difference between an acorn and a pine cone is and what's a millipede and what's a centipede.
"We are in danger of allowing a generation to grow who know only Xboxes and computers. The balance needs to be redressed."
But technology is crucial to the Earth Calling philosophy as well. Pupils use digital cameras to record what they see all the time, as can be easily witnessed by a fleeting visit to the Earth Calling website.
"It's a great tool to make use of and the pupils love it. We've been involved with schools for 10 years now and the digital camera has been recording what pupils have been experiencing and creating throughout that time," says Mr Eagan. "It's another way of getting them involved in nature."
`PUPILS REALLY BEGIN TO VALUE THEIR INTERACTION WITH NATURE'
Una Gillespie, Cramond head "Earth Calling has brought enthusiasm, commitment, drive and a vision for outdoor education to our school.
They get the children involved in planning and organising from the start, by giving the responsibility to pupils to come up with ideas, feed back to their peers and see projects through.
You notice the pupils' attitude to the environment change. You'll hear a pupil say to another, `Don't touch the willow - it's still growing.' And Earth Calling also supports the teachers with ideas for follow-up work.
It's so important for young people to see the outdoors as a classroom and not just a playground; and working with Earth Calling over the past two years has allowed us to embed outdoor teaching within every year group, especially now that our school grounds have been transformed.
Pupils spread the wildlife message to their peers and to parents and the wider community. For example, at our open days to raise awareness, pupils act as wildlife guides.
They are totally involved and you can see that pupils really begin to value their interaction with nature."