On safari with the real minibeasts
Well, what did you expect, children? Herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the Serengeti? Alligators brooding menacingly along the banks of the Orinoco? A slobbering pack of hyena tearing greedily at the still warm carcass of a baby giraffe?
Angelika scratched her head and looked bored. Our Wild Garden Safari last term was not the wonderfully inspiring, totally hands-on, real-life experience I had anticipated. The only excitement came when Ryan put a spider down the back of Emma's frock and her screams sent every living creature in a three-mile radius scurrying for cover.
Of course, I blame Attenborough. Minibeasts are just not as exciting as they used to be. I know size isn't everything, but how are half a dozen bewildered woodlice under a house brick ever going to compare with a HD rhinoceros bearing down on you from a 54-inch flat-screen home entertainment system?
The problem is that I am competing with a virtual world whose ever- extending tentacles are tearing children further and further away from mundane reality. I am in Mortal Kombat with the PlayStation. The Nintendo Wii leaves me exhausted. I am on a treadmill that goes ever faster, ever nowhere, in a race that cannot be won. The expectations on children to have a work ethic are diminished; the expectations on me to keep them constantly engaged and constantly learning are increased. And to keep me honest I must be ever under the observation spotlight, a specimen under the microscope of those in charge of quality control, a helplessly squirming victim under the great beady eye of the Ofsted magnifying glass.
But thank heavens for magnifying glasses - they improved the Wild Garden Safari experience no end as they brought the life-and-death dramas of the quiet backwater of our school's playground to stark life. The humble ladybird instantly revealed itself to be a giant, trundling predator capable of devouring an entire colony of aphids in a single sitting. Columns of ants organised themselves into a ruthless red army bent on world domination. Bumble bees, fully laden, throbbed like Apache helicopters among the thistles. Coy butterflies, like painted geishas, brazenly spread their wings.
Angelika was still scratching her head, but by and large our safari was going well. Then Bradley used his lens to sacrifice a worm and Daisy, sobbing loudly at the cruel injustice of it all, threatened to report him to the Animal Liberation Front which, she reliably informed everyone, would torch his house, throw acid in his face and put a bomb under his dad's Ford Escort.
She sobbed even louder when he tried to set fire to her, too. At this point, the term "safeguarding" began to trumpet like a distressed elephant inside my head. Should I have written a risk assessment for a Wild Garden Safari? It was not just Daisy's imminent immolation that concerned me. What would be the implications if someone turned out to be allergic to nettles or ant bites or bee stings? What if somebody went into anaphylactic shock?
"Remember, children, that everywhere is a habitat for something," I explained from the comparative safety of my classroom. "For your homework I want you to check out your backyards, search your sheds and explore the cupboard under the stairs. Remember, anywhere can be a habitat."
"Can Angelika's head be a habitat?" asked Ryan, searching through her tangled locks (not with a fine-tooth comb, although that might come later). "There's some minibeasts crawling through the undergrowth."
Steve Eddison is a key stage 2 teacher in Sheffield. Mike Kent is on holiday.