Forests are some of the most natural places in the world for learning about life. Havens for a rich variety of plants, birds, mammals and insects, they offer countless opportunities for investigation and self-expression.
However, with the UK being one of the least forested places in Europe, and only 1 per cent of Scotland given over to woods of natural origin, woodland classes have not been an easy option for many schools.
That is now changing. A native woodland regeneration project by the Scottish Forest Alliance means teachers and pupils can look forward to woodlands playing a far more significant role in cross-curricular learning and teaching.
The long-term alliance between BP, the Forestry Commission Scotland, the Woodland Trust Scotland and the RSPB Scotland, which was formed in 2000, is supporting one of the largest and most ambitious projects of its kind. It aims to regenerate and expand native woodlands, contribute towards UK targets for forest and woodland biodiversity, promote social and economic gains for local communities and the wider Scottish population, and evaluate, research and demonstrate the contribution of sustainable forests to carbon sequestration.
At 10 diverse sites around the country, which together cover more than 6,000 hectares (15,000 acres), the alliance aims to encourage the growth of 2.7 million more native woodland trees, through planting and natural regeneration. The ultimate aim is to create at least 10,000 hectares - equivalent to 16,000 standard size football pitches - of new native woodland, rich in flora and fauna and with benefits for recreation, tourism and employment. A large portion of the SFA's funding - BP has pledged pound;10 million over 10 years as part of its social investment programme in Scotland and the alliance members are expected to attract an additional pound;20 million by 2010 - has already been committed.
Gordon Harvey, of the BP regional team in Aberdeen, says: "The SFA sites can offer schools, colleges and universities a range of learning experiences, which will give a greater understanding of the concept of sustainability.
"Our sites are developing their own programmes of activities, drawing on the existing educational resources of the host organisations. These activities aim to reinforce the SFA message - woodland for wildlife and people - by demonstrating the importance of finding a balance between improving our natural environment and bringing social and economic benefits to neighbouring communities."
SFA sites work individually with primary and secondary schools to provide resources and projects tailored to teachers' requirements.
At Darroch Wids, near Huntly in Aberdeenshire, links with primary schools took firm root after a lively launch event in 2002 brought to life the history of the Clashindarroch forest in a short play and featured posters and costumes designed by the pupils.
Last December, children from Clatt and Gartly primary schools celebrated National Tree Week by planting oak, birch and rowan trees at the site and watching a planting machine in action.
Now, the site's SFA project manager, Liz Shortall, hopes to secure a Scottish Executive biodiversity action grant for a project with the Gordon Schools in Huntly. It is proposed that S3 and S4 classes will cultivate native woodland ground flora as part of their biology and managing environmental resources courses.
"The project will involve pupils working with a wildlife conservation consultant to collect, clean, dry, store and germinate seeds from wild flowers growing at Darroch Wids. These will then be planted out on site to encourage the spread of ground flora across the new woodland area and improve biodiversity by providing scope for native insects, birds and small mammals," she says.
"It's a very exciting project," says the school's principal teacher of biology, Fiona Cruickshank. "Pupils will be able to speak to experts and get hands-on experience that links directly to their courses."
On the isle of Skye, the Kinloch Hills project was launched last June, with primary children acting the parts of woodland creatures in The Fellowship of the Forest, a costume play focusing on the biodiversity benefits of regenerating native woodland.
P4 pupils at Sleat, Broadford and Kyleakin primary schools are cultivating oak and hazel saplings from nuts and planting them on the site a year later.
For Broadford Primary, it is a welcome extension to learning activities associated with the school's wildlife garden. Class teacher Sarah MacLennan says the pupils are excited about having such hands-on involvement with their local environment.
Alison MacLennan, acting headteacher at Sleat Primary, says the long-term project links with topics such as our local area, trees, and local organisations.
"The project goes well beyond trees," Ms MacLennan says. "It helps give the children a sense of community. They are learning about natural resources and will hopefully show more consideration towards the environment as a result."
The children are assisted by adult mentors who have been trained in sowing, watering, weeding and planting by the Kinloch Hills SFA project manager, Chris Marsh, and his colleagues.
"The kids love getting mucky with the compost and it's a great way of involving them in the overall project from an early age," says Andy Law, a project mentor at Kyleakin and Broadford primary schools.
Abernethy Forest in Strathspey offers schools a range of resources as part of the RSPB Living Classrooms field teaching programme. This gives children opportunities to experience nature first-hand by exploring various flora and fauna themes, including conservation management.
RSPB staff and volunteers work with pupils studying the Caledonian forest floor. "A day visit provides a really good mix, bringing in plants, trees, birds, mammals and insects," says volunteer and former teacher Meg Ferrier.
Links have been established with eight local primary schools and work has begun with two secondaries.
Rhona Smith, the headteacher at Aviemore Primary, says: "We have done various projects with the RSPB, from making and putting up bird boxes and making bird cake to field studies on insects and small mammals, looking at bird migration and the social and historic aspects of the forest.
Activities can link with a range of subjects, including science, history, geography, environmental studies and the expressive arts."
Geordie's Wood near Muckhart, in the Ochils, Clackmannanshire, is the latest site to become part of the Scottish Forest Alliance. Having held tree-planting days to celebrate the launch of the Glen Quey and Glen Sherup projects, Woodland Trust Scotland staff, together with Muckhart Primary, are now planning a special tree planting project at the nearby wood.
It will bring educational and recreational benefits to the Muckhart community, as the site's SFA project manager, Philip Gordon, explains.
"Glen Sherup, Glen Quey and Geordie's Wood are linked geographically and Geordie's Wood brings us right to the edge of the village.
"In consultation with Clackmannanshire ranger service, we asked Muckhart Primary, a community school, if they would like to adopt one of our field areas. They were very interested.
"The plan is now developing to include local youth organisations and other interested groups. It's early days, but it looks as if this will be a community-wide project."
The initiative is likely to be launched with a ranger visiting the school to talk about the Geordie's Wood environment and the children carrying out a site survey of existing vegetation and wildlife in their adopted area.
The children and the other community groups will then be asked to build their ideas for developing the site around what is there already and what they would like to do for the area in terms of creating new habitats.
"Basically, they'll be recreating child-scale native woodland habitats along Scottish Forest Alliance principles, and using the area as an outdoor classroom," Mr Gordon says.
www.scottishforestalliance.org.uk Forestry Commission Scotland, www.forestry.gov.ukScotland (see Forests For Learning) Woodland Trust Scotland, www.wild-about-woods.org.uk RSPB Scotland, www.rspb.org.ukteaching
Managed by the Forestry Commission Scotland:
* Darroch Wids, near Huntly
* Kinloch Hills, Skye
* Drumbow, near Airdrie
* Glenmore Forest Park, Strathspey
Managed by the RSPB Scotland:
* Abernethy, Strathspey
* Inversnaid extension, Loch Lomondside Managed by the Woodland Trust Scotland:
* Glen Finglas, Trossachs
* Glen Quey, the Ochils
* Glen Sherup, the Ochils
* Geordie's Wood, the Ochils The sites attracted more than 522,000 visitors last year and have generated more than 100 man years of direct employment.