Outdoors: Books in the running brooks

Where learning is a breath of fresh air. By Sally Staples
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The Independent Travel
Remember the school playground? Chances are it was a regulation square of concrete where gangs lurked in the corners and the rough surface regularly stripped the skin off vulnerable knees. Those were the days when children spent most of the school day restricted to learning in the classroom and nature walks were an occasional treat. Now, thanks to the environmental charity Learning Through Landscapes, pupils and teachers all over Britain are being encouraged to take lessons outside, and to turn their own school grounds into an additional classroom.

Next Friday more than half a million children in some 1,700 schools will celebrate School Grounds Day by taking part in projects such as pond dipping, brick-making, tree and flower planting, bird- and bat-box building, tree dressing and creating nature trails.

It is unlikely, however, that many schools will offer the variety found at Coombes Infant School, just outside Reading in Berkshire. Here, under the guidance of headteacher Sue Humphries, boys and girls are used to learning outside, and their every activity will be related to maths, science, geography, biology, music or botany.

Twenty-five years ago Coombes Infant School in Arborfield was just a building in a rough field. Now, thanks to parents, teachers and the local community, there are plum and apple trees, a bluebell wood, secret dens built from old logs, willow arbours and arches, nature trails, four sheep (soon to produce lambs), even an amphitheatre, which enthusiastic parents are helping to construct.

Sitting in rows above the amphitheatre, a group of six-year-olds were working with clipboards and learning about compass points; in a corner of the playing field more youngsters were making patterns with dandelions, using the inspiration of real paintings. Others made and measured a daisy chain to exactly half a metre, so they could measure the length of the dandelion patterns made by their friends.

As Sue pointed out, behind every activity there is a didactic point. In the bluebell wood the art class had taken out carpet squares to lie on while they drew in a natural habitat, instead of copying from a vase in a studio. Pond dipping is not just about catching things in your net; it is about studying the species.

The deputy head, Susan Rowe, was supervising a gloriously messy class who were busy making mortar and building a brick wall. "The children have seen building going on in school, and it's so important to relate what they do to what they see going on round them," she said.

Another group was making music with sticks by beating the ground in regular rhythms. This, Sue explained, was to do with maths, co-ordination and working as a team as much as it was to do with music.

Parents are encouraged to drop in and watch, or help with their children's activities. John Tupman, whose daughter has just started at Coombes, is delighted at the approach to learning: "I think it's lovely to learn about natural history in this way. The children are so clearly very interested in what is going on round them."

Coombes Infant School has regular visits from schools both in Britain and abroad. On Friday the school will be hosting the national launch of School Grounds Day, and this is the third year that Learning Through Landscapes has celebrated its focus on using school grounds for educational, environmental and community activities.

Director Bill Lucas said: "With most children spending over a quarter of their school day outside in the grounds, it is crucial that these places make their experience enjoyable and worthwhile. Teachers in hundreds of schools are backing our research into the dramatic benefits of this kind of work.

"When their school grounds are used and developed in the right way, bullying, vandalism and accidents are reduced and pupils' attitude and behaviour are improved," he added.

The charity has been backed this year by Esso UK, which has issued schools with a special pack to help them survey their grounds as a starting point to discussions about how they can best be developed.

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