Clare Whitelegg is RSPB Schools Outreach Officer in Eastern England.  Here she writes about birds as a source of inspiration. 

The breeze in your hair, golden leaves on an autumnal oak and the gentle ‘tsetse’ calls of long tailed tits high up in the branches: a moment of ‘connection to nature’ on one of the RSPB’s Schools Outreach sessions this year in Norfolk. Birds are of course central to the RSPB’s education programme. Our aim is to get children all over the UK to experience what it feels like to connect to nature. In much of our work, learning about birdlife is the conduit for this experience.

Our Schools Outreach Programme is a key part of our education work across the UK, and in the East of England we run a very popular Outreach Programme in the city of Norwich. Generously funded by the Aldi supermarket chain, free outreach sessions are available in 17 cities across the UK, including Norwich. Our trained educators work with teachers and pupils in their school grounds to deliver fun and engaging outdoor learning sessions.

Every session involves at least 30 minutes of out-door discovery, allowing pupils to experience the natural world first-hand and, we hope, experience that connection to nature. To date, this program-me has helped to deliver more than 75,000 ‘nature connections’ for schoolchildren in the UK.  The three-year partnership will deliver connection-to-nature experiences to more than half a million children in schools, on nature reserves and through activities parents can do with their children at home.

Research has shown that children today have far fewer opportunities to connect with nature than in previous generations and this is detrimental to their wellbeing.  Our outreach project aims to counteract this, to improve children’s wellbeing while inspiring them to love and understand nature. Ultimately, we hope this will sow the seeds for the next generation of nature-lovers and conservationists to continue protecting nature.

Our outreach project offers three curriculum-linked activities for schools to choose from:

Giving Nature a Home Pupils map wildlife habitats in their school grounds and plan to create more homes to help wildlife, such as putting up nest boxes.

Bioblitz Based on citizen science activities originating in the USA, in a short time, pupils hunt for living things including birds, plants and mini-beasts in their school grounds. The lasting impact of this engagement is ongoing in many schools. Schools respond to the resulting demands from the children to have bug pots and binoculars avail-able in school, for after-school clubs, break times and golden time.

Big Schools’ Birdwatch is our third session within Schools Outreach. Here we focus with the children on local birdlife. We can’t emphasise enough how the joy and excitement of these sessions is so utterly counter to the traditional image of bird-watching! We work with groups of 30 pupils using binoculars, dashing (hopefully quietly!) around their school grounds excitedly identifying and re-cording birds. For most children we work with in these sessions, this is their first experience of watching birds. It brings to life classroom learning.

They see real, living creatures in the wild which they may never have seen before. It’s wonderful that children begin to understand that these animals are right there in their own neighbour-hood. They are enchanted and the joy is palpable.  Pupils may get close to a cheeky, confident robin, pick out for themselves a blue tit high in a tree for the first time in their life, spot a buzzard circling up in the blue, or experience the sheer excitement of tracking down a great tit by its call, which they have just learned in the classroom. Pied wagtails are brilliant for school birdwatching: they are bold, easy to spot and interesting to look at. Watching a sparrowhawk being mobbed by gulls is a vivid new experience, showcasing that whole other world which is up there!

However, it’s best to hear about it from the children themselves:

“It was brilliant using the binoculars because you could really spot the birds even if they were sitting in a tree quite far away.” (Year 2)

“We saw a huge flock of woodpigeons in the sky.” (Year 1)

“It was helpful to learn about the different birds first so that we could try and spot them outside.” (Year 2)

“We went into the woods and saw a robin and we could hear him before we even saw him.” (Year 3)

Many of our schools in Norwich have taken their learning further, incorporating the outreach session into their ongoing learning. One school embraced the ideas from our outreach work and created a whole term’s topic around birds. They looked at the poem ‘The Raven’ in English, created bird artwork and used the many data-handling possibilities from the Birdwatch in maths.

Other schools have even decided to turn their school grounds into a nature reserve as a result of our Giving Nature a Home session. The way schools incorporate our work contributes to children having an encompassing experience of environmental education. When we joined one local Year 2 cohort for the Big Schools’ Birdwatch, pupils were already experts at penguin identificat-ion from their classroom work within their Antar-ctica topic. At the end of the Birdwatch session, children walked back to class singing the chorus from their play about penguins and climate change.

The Big Schools’ Birdwatch gives them a real life experience of birds. They learn to identify garden birds in the wild and by the end they have worked as real scientists in the field. Who knows where this will lead? It is all pretty exciting if you are 7!  Our outreach sessions bring learning to life, making it real, and this is where the excitement comes from. That this excitement and joy is so evident, spontaneous and seemingly innate in children gives us hope for the future of our wildlife.

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There’s more information at: rspb.org.uk/kids-and-schools .  This article was first published in NAEE’s 2017  journal, Environmental Education (Vol. 115).  To read more articles like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.