Numeracy takes root in the woods

18th April 2003 at 01:00
Branch out and take your classes to the forest to see applications for their maths lessons, writes Julie Morrice

Forestry has been big business in Scotland for generations but only recently has it been recognised as a wonderful educational resource too.

"Forestry is not taught in school, but it is an excellent way of delivering the 5-14 curriculum," says Greg Macfarlane, a woodland officer for the Forestry Commission in Lothian and Borders. He is pulling together support and funding for a new teaching base at Glenkinnon, near Caddonfoot in the Borders, which will combine outdoor and numeracy-based activities.

Mr Macfarlane is enthusiastic about the education possibilities inherent in things such as circular seats, wooden steps, vertical posts of differing lengths, large-scale number lines and even games of Poohsticks. Estimating, measuring, percentages, geometry and velocity are all more interesting outdoors, he suggests. "Maths in a classroom is pretty dry but here children can come out and see practical applications for all this number work."

The proposed number sculpture trail will be accessible to the disabled as well as able-bodied and will feature sculptures to touch.

The native ancient woodland is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It features a burn where salmon run and a 500-year-old tree, the Caddonfoot Oak.

Mr Macfarlane's plans include a footpath to a panoramic viewpoint from which to see not only stunning scenery but also various land uses, including farming, Christmas tree and other conifer plantations and grouse-rich heather slopes. "I wanted to find a wood where we could show timber production as well as conservation," he says.

It is hoped that at least part of the trail will be open by the end of the year, but it is no easy matter. The project is relying on piecemeal input from timber-related industries and organisations.

Educational forestry projects in Scotland are usually pieced together in this way, with personnel and funding from numerous "partners" or "cluster groups", as the Forestry Commission calls them. Some are short-term National Lottery-funded projects, which plan little more than a year ahead.

Nonetheless, some marvellous projects have emerged, notably the Scottish Borders Treefest Bus, which will start off on its travels again after Easter.

Another is a CD-Rom entitled Woodlands, which has been issued to all Borders primary schools recently and will be made available to all the Forest Education Initiative clusters across Scotland in the hope that they will find the funds to disseminate it widely in their areas. Using a combination of stunning photographs and quirky animation, the CD-Rom shows how woodlands have been one of our most valuable resources from the earliest times. It encourages discussion of the fate of our native brown bear, elk and beaver, reveals the changing Scottish landscape over the past 6,000 years, explores the multifarious uses of trees and shares a load of interesting facts and figures. For instance, did you know that 400 types of minibeasts live on oak trees?

"We're going to pull our socks up over the next few years," says Sally York, the environmental education adviser for the Forestry Commission. At the moment the availability of woodland-based educational experiences for school groups is a postcode lottery. There are interesting projects around the country but, particularly in large urban centres, the possibilities for teaching in the woods are not highly visible.

"Consistency of delivery is one of our six guiding principles," says Ms York, "but delivery has been inconsistent due to staffing difficulties and because there aren't often Forestry Commission sites within minutes of an urban school.

"We've been delivering environmental education on an ad hoc basis as the Commission sees young people as an important target group. Now we are pulling it together and helping staff to think about the best way of delivering it in their own area.

"Ideally we want to get people into woodland, experiencing it and making connections between the wood they use in daily life and the woodland where it grows."

Forestry Commission resources, a woodland education experience enquiries, tel 0845 367 3787e-mail

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