Wood you like a new project?

21st September 2012 at 01:00
An outdoor learning scheme called Woodlands, Words and Wonders is worth exploring, says Jean McLeish

Billy Daniel loves being out in the woods. He was just 13 years old when he began working in the forests at weekends and during school holidays nearly 40 years ago.

On a woodland walk, he can name all the trees and plants along the way and, with a well-established career in estates and forest management, he's an ideal guide to introduce Perthshire school children to their local woodland.

More than 70 schools have already taken part in journeys like this as part of Woodlands, Words and Wonders, an outdoor learning project run by Perth and Kinross Countryside Trust.

It uses a mix of story-telling and woodland exploration to encourage children and teachers to use and enjoy their local countryside and to develop their own stories from their outdoor experience.

"This is a mixed broadleaf woodland with Scots Pine and lots of different species - rowan, mountain ash, oak and beech. I've never seen so much naturally regenerated beech ever," says Billy.

His grandfather was a Canadian lumberjack who came here to help cut down trees when Scotland's men were away fighting during the Second World War. Billy thinks the feeling he has for trees and forests might be in his genes.

"This is a very interesting wood - I've spotted deer tracks and fox tracks," says Billy, as he prepares to head into the woods with the P45 children.

He looks the part, dressed in tweeds and a light brown velvet riding coat and boots. This morning, he has taken on the role of David Douglas, Scotland's most famous plant hunter, who explored America in the early 19th century. He brought back 250 different species of trees, plants and flowers which shaped the landscape of the countryside in Britain and beyond.

The costume helps Billy get into character and tell the story of David Douglas to these eight- and nine-year-olds from Muthill Primary, before they head off into the woods.

To create an atmospheric setting, two tepees have been put up on the fringe of the woodland and there's a plume of smoke curling up from an opening on the top of the bigger tepee. Inside is David Douglas's Native American guide "Running Fox", who'll be showing the children survival skills in the woods and telling stories about his adventures.

The children began their day with a nature walk up here from their school with professional storyteller Claire Hewitt, who points out interesting plants along the way. She's dressed as "Henny", a villager who looked after the hens and would have been the local expert on culinary and medicinal plants around the time David Douglas was growing up.

The children split into groups and follow the three characters into the woods. "I want you to remember that this is a Meadow Buttercup and remember how you identify it," David Douglas says, giving one of the boys a buttercup to hold on to.

Then he points to a clump of docken leaves which he says are good for wrapping up food for cooking or steaming.

"Like sushi?" one of the boys suggests.

"Very good, yes," says Billy, slightly surprised by the sophisticated tastes of eight-year-old boys in rural Perthshire.

He recommends they try nettle haggis, which is made using ham, leeks and nettle leaves. "It changes the taste and it's very, very nice - so I'm told," he says.

Scarlett Mackintosh, 8, is enjoying her day. "I like being out of the school grounds - it's nice being somewhere apart from school. And it's a lovely view," she says.

The children bring back samples from the woods to remind them what they have discovered. Oliver Lakeman, 7, says: "I've learnt that trees put their roots out to stabilise themselves in the wind."

Step into big tree country

This part of the world is known as Perthshire Big Tree Country - thanks to plant collectors like David Douglas who gave his name to the Douglas Fir.

Perth and Kinross Countryside Trust works to improve access to the countryside and has been running the Woodlands, Words and Wonder project for three years. It has developed a continuing professional development programme for teachers to encourage them to deliver elements of this kind of venture themselves and to spend more time outside with pupils.

"We want them to know that they don't have to know every tree or every flower or every track out there," explains Kirsty Scott, promotions awareness officer with the trust.

"They can go out into their local woodland, which is why we have used woodlands within walking distance of schools, and they can use that space on a regular basis. We have also done an education pack that is available online on our website and we are also putting it on Glow," says Ms Scott.

The programme is designed for P4-7 pupils in line with Curriculum for Excellence and there are suggestions for activities teachers might like to pursue with classes.

"They might be doing a biology topic, a writing topic or a plant topic and there are different things they can dip into and use and they're divided into different age categories," Ms Scott adds. "Schools can't replicate this, but they can replicate elements of it, having experienced it."

The trust hopes to work on developing a new project for schools after the final block of sessions on this topic has been delivered.

www.perthshire bigcountry.co.uk.

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