Why swans live on water

Wendy Frankiss

The practicalities of taking primary children out of the classroom and into the countryside can be an organisational nightmare. But the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has devised two outdoor teaching programmes for five to 12-year-olds to overcome the problems.

First Nature and Second Nature have been designed to enable primary teachers and their pupils to get the most out of fieldwork on an RSPB reserve, while linking carefully with the curriculum. They provide a teachers' guide with photocopiable materials and suggestions for preparatory classwork and follow-up work. The real bonus for teachers is that the day is organised under the guidance of RSPB teacher-naturalists.

Vane Farm is an RSPB education development centre on the south shore of Loch Leven, near Kinross, Tayside. There are also three centres in England.

Liz Harris, the full-time senior education officer at Vane Farm, works with four part-time teacher-naturalists. Last year, with some sponsorship from the oil company Elf, they produced a package called First Nature, for Primary 1-3. It was based on sensory activities, introducing children to environments through an adventure walk and then looking at a couple of habitats out of a choice of four - grassworld, waterworld, hedgeworld and treeworld.

It was so successful that they decided to develop it to Second Nature for Primary 4-7 or key stage 2. While First Nature takes an experiential approach, Second Nature is more scientific and includes investigations.

Liz Harris said: "Children are aware that different creatures live in different habitats, but they're not aware why. They know they'll find beetles under a log and caterpillars on leaves but Second Nature tries to make them aware that there's a different reason for the swan living on water and not in the wood."

The idea of adaptation is introduced, and children discuss cartoons of creatures in unsuitable habitats, such as a camel underneath the water. They design a creature using modelling clay and material from round about. They then look at two habitats and finish by talking about food chains.

RSPB centres alter the programmes to suit each school's requirements, both special school and mainstream. Ms Harris said: "The teacher naturalists often have to adapt as they go along according to children's needs and abilities. "

From October to Easter the reserve offers an outreach programme to schools. It has also been involved in joint projects with the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Vane Farm is an internationally famous site for the pink-footed geese which arrive in their thousands during September on passage; some stay all winter. As well as the geese, the water birds - the various ducks and waders - are the main interest.

When the children are taken to the hide on the edge of the loch, their excitement is barely containable. Their accompanying teacher-naturalist explains how they should behave and makes sure that each of them understands what they are looking at and why.

Ms Harris said: "We've had more breeding waders within sight of the hide this year, so children have been able to see young birds."

Both First and Second Nature have become extremely popular and the teaching reserves are planning new programmes for the start of a new term. Early booking is advised.

* Vane Farm, Loch Leven, near Kinross, Tayside. Tel: 01577 862355.

* Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Sandy, Bedfordshire. Tel: 01767 680551.

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