We decided it was time that we found the Giant Squid at the bottom of the school pond. Tales are told of a great sea monster that long ago settled in our murky waters. With eyes the size of footballs and tentacles covered in suckers, it strikes fear into the heart of Year 4. We wanted to be ready for it, and anything else we could find down in the depths.
We arm ourselves with the necessary fishing nets, magnifying glasses and pooters (a sort of tube that you suck insects through to examine them) and I lead a group of excitable eight year-olds down to the pond. We have brought along an excellent spotters guide from the Woodland Trust. Children are asked to pair up and decide who is going to go first with the net. This is not as easily achieved as it sounds.
I explain that the key is to move the net slowly through the water in a figure of eight shape, and demonstrate a way of looping the net back on itself to get rid of the heavy mud and silt. The only difficult part, I say, is the matter of not sliding down the bank and stepping into the water. Within five minutes, I have done so twice, and my sock is soaking after my left welly has sprung a leak. Some of the children think this looks like a good scheme, and decide to follow suit.
‘You mustn’t do what I do, do what I tell you to do’ I instruct sagely.
Staying well away from the water’s edge now, the children drag their nets across the pond surface to collect some duckweed growing on top. Our pond has masses of the stuff. It is good fun to clear it, but it will grow back again in a day or two.
Tangled in their nets are a bumper crop of pond snails, whirligig beetles, and water boatmen. Under the magnifying glass, they take on immense proportions, with shimmering colours and hues. Young James sees me looking particularly closely at a waterbug. ‘It looks just like you, Sir,’ he says.
The children collect their specimens in a bowl for further investigation. Next they carefully dredge the bottom of the pond and bring up netfuls of gloopy mud, crawling with bugs. One net has three newts in it, trying unsuccessfully to blend in and go unnoticed. Children who are afraid of touching or holding wildlife soon come around once they see their friends having a go. All it takes is a few brave souls to encourage the others.
Before long, a whole bevy of newts have been lifted to the surface. I think newts should be installed in every classroom in the country; they can entertain children for hours. We give them all names and they begin to show distinct personality traits. Some are shy, others outgoing and plucky. Others have a mischievous side. One just wants to go round in circles. He was definitely my favourite.
I pass around the pencils and paper and the children sketch their findings. The pictures are accurate and detailed, with the correct names written underneath. I notice that one of the snails has sunglasses on. It is very peaceful by the pond, with the drowsy hum of dragonflies buzzing around us and only the calls from a nearby cricket match breaking the silence. It is a rare moment of calm and quiet in the school day.
And before we know it, it is home time. We never did find the giant squid. We empty the tank and release our captives back into the pond to swim another day. The children all agree this was the greatest Outdoors Ed session ever. The afternoon has certainly flown by.
Later that day I find our D.T. teacher in the staff room and tell him about the newts we found.
‘I had a pet newt once,’ he says. ‘We called him Kingca.’
‘Kingca?’ I ask.
‘Yes,’ he replies with glee. ‘Kingca Newt!’ And he laughs so much that he nearly spills his tea.
Pond Dipping Tips
- Get hold of the right equipment. You’ll need enough nets for the children to share, or you can make your own from a stick and an old pair of tights. A tank or plastic box full of fresh water in which to place your finds. Old paintbrushes can be useful to transfer bugs from one place to another. A spotters guide: we used one from the excellent Woodland Trust. You can download it here.
- It’s best to go dipping in ponds in the spring time, when things are starting to burst into life. You won’t find much if you go in December.
- Encourage children to keep the creatures submerged for most of the time. Newts in particular can’t survive for too long out of the water.
- Wellies or some sort of waterproof shoes are a must.
- Wash your hands thoroughly afterwards!