At home in the rainforest, lost in the woods

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AT THE end-of-term Open Day, pride of place went to a display of home-made rainforests. These mini-scenes, set in shoeboxes, were constructed entirely out of bits of coloured paper, save the odd puddle of tap water standing in for the Amazon.

As I went around the classrooms on a glorious summer day, I realised that I was looking, indeed longing, to see something more in keeping with the standard British environment. Real plants would have been a novelty, as would some evidence of nature being studied and loved by small children.

It was then I realised that the old-fashioned nature table, with its displays of birds' nests, seeds, feathers and skeletons of leaves, all collected by children from gardens or parks around them, was extinct. I recalled a last sighting four years ago when, at my then three-year-old's nursery school, there was indeed a well-used nature table.

Our children seem exceptionally well versed in the dilemmas facing planet Earth, the way rainforests keep the world alive and breathing; they even go for trips around Sainsbury's to learn about green products. But they seem completely ignorant of the nitty-gritty, everyday marvels of the British countryside and the cycle and pattern of garden life.

Even a small exhibition showing the stages through which a dandelion progesses from deep root to wisp of seed blown away by the wind would have been welcome that afternoon. I was reminded of the way in which a former director-general of the BBC decided to redirect funds into making natural history programmes about common or garden things, such as squirrels and dormice, to balance the endless exotic travel programmes about rare phenomena.

For some refreshment, I turned to 'A Week in the Country', a column in Country Life. But, to my amazement, there was a similar lament from a countryman, J N P Watson. He describes hosting a children's tea-party in the country at which a new game was devised: go treasure hunting in the woods with a nice prize for those who brought back most single leaves from different species of trees and another for the child who could name most of them. He reports his horror at finding that only three children could name the most basic - oak, ash and hazel. Holly only scraped through because it is brought into the house at Christmas.

As a parent, it made me feel a bit guilty. As a child of the suburbs but born of a mother who was a countrywoman, I was certainly encouraged to press different collections of flowers, grasses and leaves. These were then stuck into scrapbooks with the names written underneath.

We had a little pocket Observer's book of flora to help us with the tricky ones. I remember taking part in obsessive hunts for four-leaf clovers. At school, catkins, pussy willows and the sticky buds from horse-chestnut trees were always brought into the classroom in the spring.

Most certainly a gulf has grown up between children and their natural environment. Nature study does not seem to be given any space in the new, super-organised curriculum. A botanist friend of mine, who has spent years cataloguing British habitat, says it is perfectly possible to go through a university degree course on the subject without examining a plant in detail. He shares my concern.

Shortly after the Open Day, as school closed up for the summer holiday, there was a dramatic example of how poor small children's knowledge is of their surroundings. Several had heard their mothers discussing the merits of edible flowers and how nice they tasted in salads. Sainsbury's, in its big stores, sells them as part of its exotic array. So virtually an entire class decided to suck the yellow flowers of a laburnum tree in the school gardens.

In fact, the seeds of this tree are highly poisonous. The good news is that the children were examined in hospital but suffered no ill effects. But the tree, mature and magnificent, was cut down - exactly the kind of action, stemming from ignorance, that our children are taught to oppose when it happens in the Amazonian rainforests.