Emily Dyer is Education Services Coordinator at the Canal & River Trust.  She co-ordinates the Trust’s education programme ‘Explorers’, developing learning resources and working with schools and groups across England and Wales.  In this article, first published in Volume 119 of our journal, Environmental Education, Emily explores the work that the Trust does with local schools.

The Canal & River Trust is the charity that cares for and brings to life 2000 miles of waterways across England and Wales, because we believe life is better by water. With ever increasing rates of obesity, stress and declining mental health in the UK, we are uniquely placed to make a significant contribution to improving the wellbeing of millions of people, and what better place to start this challenge than at the beginning – with our children and young people. 

The Trust works with schools and groups through our popular learning programme ‘Explorers’. We inspire children’s learning by connecting them to our canals and rivers, whether that’s on the towpath, in their classroom or clubhouse or at one of our museums and attractions. Visits are led by our skilled Education Volunteers who are crucial to the success of our programme. Outreach visits either in school or to the towpath are completely free of charge. Each canal and river is unique and offers powerful ways to engage children and bring learning to life, and the opportunity for cross-curricular study is im-mense. In the children’s own words: 

The trip has allowed me to understand how the cannals [sic] were made and it has allowed me to understand how the coal was transported and about the reccent [sic] history that was there. In my opinion it was amazing and I hope to go again.” Year 3 pupil. 

We always encourage schools and groups to venture out onto the towpath or river bank for their visit. There’s nothing better than seeing the green-blue flash of a king-fisher or the workings of a lock in real life. But a good way to introduce a topic is with an in-school outreach visit first, and this also provides a more focussed setting to introduce water safety – a key factor across all of our work.

Our aim is to equip children with the skills to enjoy all that our waterways have to offer safely and sensibly. We have a suite of free water safety resources available on our website, with a popular one being ‘Spot the Hazards’. Children are presented with a waterside scene showing some people making safe decisions whilst being by water, and some people making poor and dangerous choices, such as jumping across locks. We ask children to spot the hazards and think for themselves what the danger might be – rather than simply providing a list of do’s and don’ts. Children have a go at throwing a life ring and learn the safest way to rescue someone if they fall in the water. We always teach children our SAFE message – to Stay Away From the Edge. Our water safety offer is increasingly popular with teachers, being so closely linked to the PSHE curriculum, and participat-ing teachers are grateful that this is offered for free in their community:

“The sessions which you each led were very informative and held the children’s’ attention. Indeed, the water safety session could save one or more of our lives in the future.” Teacher, Greenways School, Stoke-on-Trent.

Once out on the towpath, learning comes alive. Children unearth the trade routes of their local canal and discover what it was built to transport, be it coal or chocolate. They can dress up as wealthy dukes who commissioned the canals, or hard-working navvies that dug the trenches. They can pond dip for mayfly larvae or trial different techniques to protect river banks from erosion. They develop empathy skills from learning about the tough life of traditional boaters and develop confidence by expanding their skills beyond the classroom. Our education offer is tailored to reflect the local area, so children learn about the historical, geographical and biological significance of what’s on their doorstep. This is important, because it helps them develop a sense of pride for where they live.

Underpinning all of the work at the Trust is the aim to create thriving communities for the eight million plus people that have a waterway on their doorstep. Our canals and rivers run through some of the most heavily populated communities in England and Wales, providing accessible green and blue space where it’s needed the most. In today’s pressured world, the water offers a much needed escape. A place to reflect, a place to breathe, and for our children and young people, a place to learn.


Contact: explorers@canalrivertrust.org.uk 

More information: canalrivertrust.org.uk/explorers 

This article was published in NAEE’s journal, Environmental Education [Vol 119].  To read more articles like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.

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