With the arrival of autumn, you can’t help but notice the changes of the colours of the leaves, and that they are beginning to fall in profusion, together with their fruits, conkers, acorns and various nuts, providing food for a variety of animals.
Knowing something of what you are looking for is really important, if children’s attention is to be drawn to specifics that might lead to an interest that lasts a lifetime. I was lucky as a child, that an uncle in Wales took us for walks over the mountains, sometimes after a nightshift in the mines, to clear his head, but also to introduce us to the world around us.
Uncle Don won’t ever have known that he instilled a love of nature in me, as a messy parental divorce led to estrangement from Wales that existed until one of my own children was eight. Deciding to make contact with my mother, I arrived on the doorstep on the morning that Uncle Don had died in his chair. Life can have a strange symmetry.
However, in my turn, as a teacher who loved the outdoors, from the early 70s and well before the “Forest Schools” theme came into existence, I was developing conservation areas, to enable outdoor study and making links with the local wildlife trust, eventually becoming a Watch (junior naturalists) leader, and voluntarily taking on the role of County Organiser for Hampshire. It was a measure of the success of this that, when I stepped down, it was advertised as a paid post!
You may wonder what there is to look for when outside. It’s worth having some sort of guide if you are unsure. One constant since it was published in 1972 has been the Collins Guide to Animal Tracks and Signs, by Preben Bang and Preben Dahlstrom. This series was very useful as an introduction to many areas. Other guides are published by the Field Studies Council and one still exists from my Watch days.
Conservation starts with observation and asking questions, then following up with some research, which might include asking an “expert”. It involves learning the names of animals and plants and identifying them easily.
It is about attention and awareness, without which it’s easy to miss that there have been fewer butterflies this year, or that ash trees are suffering and may well die out in large numbers in the next few years. When creatures die out, as a result of our apparent disinterest, we are partly to blame.
Go out and look; be an active discoverer of the world and, do you know the best bit? It’s good for your well-being! Go outside, breathe fresh air and look…
And maybe you have the next David Attenborough in your class.
So, what to do?
1) Visit a DIY store and find colour charts with autumn colours. Get children to bring in egg boxes. Put one autumn colour in each egg space and go out to find something that matches the colours in the box. This can be a home activity.
2) Go out and look for the signs that mammals have been eating nearby, especially where nuts or pine cones have fallen. Unpick a pine cone to find the pine nuts that are being sought. Show children something that is not obvious. Look at the nuts, especially hazelnuts, to find holes, or if they have been split in half.
3) Look for droppings, of different sorts, even in towns, where rabbits and foxes may be most obvious.
4) Make a sand area or find a mud area where animal tracks may be more visible. Make plaster casts; a circle of cardboard to secure the plaster, add the plaster to an appropriate amount of water (a small mound should appear above the water to make it the right consistency), pour into the mould and wait. Clean off when dry. Nb you can practice making plaster casts in the classroom, with handprints in plasticine.
5) Look for bark scratched or gnawed off trees.
6) Look, listen, film, photograph. Make an Attenborough style documentary.
7) Speculate; where do the animals live? Make a map of the area, record where the evidence has been found and then look for any holes, or other signs, that might show where the animals are.