Trees: Chemistry lessons in the schoolyard

It doesn't take a tree expert to plant a tree. Average people across the UK are planting acorns and conkers in pots and parklandss to do their bit to save the nation's forests. Caroline Allen reports.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The Coombes School in Reading has no ordinary schoolyard. When students stare listlessly out classroom windows what they see are dozens of species of trees in an arboretum created by their own hands, and the hands of hundreds of former students.

"When the school opened some 25 years ago," says Head Teacher Sue Humphries, "there was not a tree or a bush on the site.

"It was decided that part of the landscaping policy would be to develop a rich resource for the students. We believed the arboretum would be a good library."

That library is full of beech trees, apple trees, oaks and elms, birds, rabbits beetles and spiders. This is biology, science, chemistry, and geography all rolled into one.

The educational benefits to the students are obvious. To increase students' appreciation of local ecosystems, they are told to pick up conkers while on walks with their parents in local parks and woodlands. They then come back to school and press the seeds into the soil, and leave them be. As the trees grow, the students study the process. When the trees flower, the children work with the fruit.

"This term, the children have been picking plums which they make into jam. It is all about a change of state. It is chemistry," Sue explains.

The children are also picking apples from the apple trees at this time of the year, counting the apple pips, creating bell curves and learning mathematics.

There are numerous other practical advantages to being surrounded by trees. The green buffer the arboretum creates lowers heating costs at the school. The trees also replenish the air and help the students who have breathing problems.

The biodiversity outside also tends to lend itself to tolerance inside.

"The children grow up among a whole range of other species. It's about living with variety, about our tolerance for other species, and each other," Sue explains.

Miss Humphries also stresses that the appreciation of poets and artists requires an appreciation of nature. "How can you understand what the poets were talking about, what the artists were trying to convey if you don't understand the complexity of nature?" she asks.

The school invites in local craftspeople who work with wood, basket makers and carvers, for example. At Christmas, the students go out into the schoolyard to get mistletoe and to cut the school's Christmas tree.

The land upon which Coombes school sits used to be an area of ancient forests. Coombes School students are puffing back into the countryside what has been taken away.

"It's about taking responsibility. It's about our care for the smaller and weaker. It's about leaving it in a better state than when we entered it," Sue explains.

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