"I thought it would just be like a normal church but it's not. It's really old and isn't full of stuff. I like it." On a freezing January morning, nine-year old Molly Brown was walking around the newly renovated church of All Saints, opposite Vange Primary School on the outskirts of Basildon.
Molly is one of a small group who have been following changes taking place over the past year. The 12th-century church had fallen into disrepair, but in 2002 it was acquired by the Churches Conservation Trust, which is funding the restoration.
Molly and her group are learning about architecture and design as they develop their detective skills. The trust's education officer, Virginia Johnston, is teaching the group "finger-made architecture". She started by asking them which part of the church might have been built first. Then she asked them to hold up their thumbs, look around and decide which windows were thumb-shaped. These, she explained, are the oldest, from the Norman period. Those shaped like an index finger are early English. Three fingers denote the late 14th century and windows with the outline of four fingers are typical of the 15th century onwards.
"It is an effective way of giving pupils an activity that is both physical and cerebral," said Virginia. "Back in class, using ICT, they can devise a trail around the church, using the windows as clues."
The east window is of most interest to the pupils. A few years ago, the beautiful stained glass was vandalised. Ben Dormer, who used to attend the church, rescued some of the pieces and glued them onto a small home-made wooden cross.
Last year, some parishioners met with the children in the church. Ben's wife Mary was among them. "I was surprised how interested these children were," she said. "They never stopped asking questions. What was it like when we came here? What did we miss most when it closed?"
But it was the story of the shattered window that caught the pupils'
imagination. Mary had brought the cross, along with photographs of the original window.
"I described how the sun used to illuminate the church," she said. They were shocked at the vandalism and we talked about why people would do such a thing."
The new window will be clear glass but the children have designed their own versions, which will be displayed at the church opening in May.
Lauren Pringle, aged 10, knows what she would ideally like to see there:
"It should be really bright but with a modern more fashionable style about all kinds of religion."
Outside is a well-tended churchyard where the children collect examples of symbols on graves. Nine-year-old George Cole spotted an obelisk. "It's the sun again," he exclaimed. "I love ancient Egyptians, they're cool." Asked to invent a symbol for a celebrity the group came up with one for Simon Cowell - a monster.
l Exploring Churches, a booklet for teachers and parents, has practical and structured activities along with resources covering most curriculum areas. pound;6 including postage from the Churches Conservation Trust www.visitchurches.org.uk
* Use empty slide mounts to focus on textures on walls, tiles, brass and wooden fittings. Ask pupils to sketch them.
* Back in school they can design their own printing block (potato, lino print and so on), or make stencils. Key stage 2 children can then transfer them to calico to make a class wall hanging.
* Plasticine is ideal for recreating shapes and textures found in a church. Its tactile nature makes it a natural progression from 2D to 3D media.
* Mould an architectural shape unique to a church.