We're out to learn

2nd April 2004 at 01:00
Spotting chaffinches, canoeing, team building and plotting your way round the coastline are just some of the core activities of Fife's innovative Natural Connections programme, launched last week.

Outdoor learning is increasingly seen by local authorities as a highly effective way to deliver key curriculum aims in primaries, secondaries and special schools. Ministers are preparing to back a more prominent role and several million pounds of lottery money is already being channelled into outdoor activities.

Devised by Fife outdoor staff and piloted over the past three years, Natural Connections has been snapped up by Scottish Borders and Dundee.

Three other authorities are showing interest in its flexible range of activities.

There are two packages - one for 8-11s and the other aimed at older pupils.

They cover six elements: adventure skills, caring for nature, working together, helping others, finding your way and journeying. Primary pupils are expected to put in five hours on each element, against 10 hours for secondary pupils.

Clare Dumigan, project officer based at Lochore Meadows Country Park, said the programme gives children and young adults the chance to find out about their environment and take part in exciting activities. "Some enjoy nature aspects, some like acquiring skills and some like the adventure aspects," Ms Dumigan said.

Staff came up with the idea after becoming disenchanted with the one-off activities that often feature in outdoor programmes, such as five-day residentials or taster activities in canoeing or abseiling.

"We used to do outdoor education and environmental education, now it's an outdoor learning programme. There is progression within it rather than one-off sessions. It's the progression that makes it different," Ms Dumigan said.

The programme can be pitched at several levels and "rewards achievement based on effort and enthusiasm". Pupils receive certificates after completing each element and before moving on to the next. There is no time limit.

Pauline Marsland, a P6 teacher at Collydean primary in Glenrothes, is a fan. "The kids absolutely love it and even the shy children blossom. It's giving them ownership of their own learning," Mrs Marsland said.

It also fits in with personal and social development and environmental studies. "Compass work and finding your way come under geography. It covers a lot of skills because it is working together or teamwork. It raises awareness of nature, gives them confidence and helps them trust others," Mrs Marsland said.

At Ardroy Centre in Argyll, Fife's own outdoor centre, Countryside Rangers and outdoor education instructors run the sessions with teachers present.

For Elaine Collins, principal teacher of behaviour support at Lochgelly High, the programme is part of the alternative curriculum she runs for disaffected S3 and S4 pupils. They always turn up on a Wednesday afternoon for their session at the Lochore park. This is her third year running the programme and she is equally enthusiastic.

"Our kids like getting a certificate and they are really chuffed they get something at the end of it. It's the answer to our prayers - when you are doing a flexible curriculum you need the physical and recreational aspects," she said.

Unlike programmes such as the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, there are no restrictions on age or time for carrying out the activities.

Natural Connections is backed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, whose Scottish director, Stuart Housden, commended the work of the Fife team. "The days when we could all go out ourselves into the countryside and muck about and see birds and other wildlife are past.

People are much more cautious these days of health and safety and care of our young people is uppermost in our minds," Mr Housden said.

It was vital that teachers and authorities helped to provide quality outdoor experiences in the countryside. "Fife is leading the way," he said.

Natural Connections can be contacted on 01592 741212 or at admin@naturalconnections.info.

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