Piglets’ Bid For Freedom

The Hazlegrove pigs are the undisputed Hollywood A-listers of the school farm. In terms of sheer glamour and charisma, our star sow and her plucky piglets never fail to deliver the goods. They are immensely popular amongst the children, who take any opportunity to go and see them. Regardless of where we might be headed, the request comes in: ‘Can we go past the pigs on the way?’ And of course, even if it means going the long way around, we usually do.

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The pigs’ popularity reached fever pitch one afternoon in March this year, when they mounted a daring escape attempt. Tiring of life in the sty, our pigs made a bid for freedom and overcame the farm’s defences in a serious breach of security. It was like a scene from The Great Escape, only with fewer German guards. Or motorcycles.

How they managed it is still a great mystery. Some say they ate their way through the fencing. Might the piglets might have sprouted wings and flown over? Some say the pigs have a friend on the inside?

In any case, they managed it.

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And so it was that the silence of a sunny spring afternoon was broken with the piercing cry of ‘Pig!’ from the nearby tennis court. An observant Year 5 had spotted a rogue piglet moving towards them at some speed.

‘PIG!’ she shouted again.

‘What did you call me?’ asked the games teacher.

‘No, not you! Look, pigs!”

And she pointed to where not one, or two, but three piglets were gleefully trotting along in single file. Our now comprehending tennis coach sprang into action, and with arms outstretched, began to herd them back. By now, word had gotten around and children were out in full force to see this once in a lifetime event.

The piglets were caked in mud and squealing happily, oblivious to the commotion they were causing. Piglet no. 2 (”piggy in the middle’) had found a snail in the grass and was trying to hoover it up. Piglet no. 3 was playing to the crowd, rolling over onto his belly and generally giving the audience what they wanted.

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The games teacher advanced, and the piglets retreated. The games teacher went this way, and the piglets went that way. For a moment it looked as if the our runaways might have the upper hand. Speed was certainly on their side.

Their new-found freedom didn’t last, however. They seemed to sense that the game was up. With a flick of their curly tails they were gone.

The celebrity pigs have remained happily in their muddy abode ever since. At the time of writing, their popularity shows no sign of waning. Only time will tell whether or not they can put their heads together and come up with another break out plan. In the meantime, we try to keep them as happy as we can.

And that, as Porky Pig would say, is all folks.

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TB

Finding Your Bearings with Orienteering

It is early on a crisp Saturday morning in March, and the school grounds are quiet. Dressed in regulation sports kit, with clipboard and pencils in hand, a band of eager Year 5’s are waiting for the whistle. They have a map, a compass and they’re wearing wellies. They are here to orienteer.

Orienteering, or as some would have it, ‘competitive-navigation-on-foot-in-unknown-terrain-using-a-map-and-compass,’ is a wonderful way for children to keep fit and spend time outdoors. It sharpens the senses, awakens innate navigation skills, and involves a healthy dose of cut-throat competition. What more could any 9 year old ask for?

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We take a bearing to establish that the athletics shed lies on a bearing of 270 degrees from the flag pole, where we are currently gathered. Having a compass around your neck is an empowering thing. They exert a sort of magnetic pull (I’m terribly sorry) on children’s attention.

The children are very interested in the idea of North. Just to confuse matters, there are actually three types of North to get to grips with this morning. True North, being the North axis of the planet earth as it turns. Grid North is straight up, following the gridlines on an OS map. And good old Magnetic North is where the needle on your compass points. This particular North doesn’t stay still, however, and wanders around the North Pole like a polar bear who can’t remember where he parked his car.

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The object of this morning’s session is to find and stamp seven ‘controls’ in a certain order, and then return the completed sheet in the shortest time. A control is a small block of wood with a unique pattern of tiny pins attached, marked with red and white triangles. They are hidden cunningly around the school grounds, nailed onto trees and on gates and buildings.

Clues can be in the form of riddles, mathematical problems, or written in other languages or codes. Some include distances to be measured with a trundle wheel, others a compass bearing to be followed.

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As each group is released to a staggered start, the orienteers scan the first instruction in haste. ‘Quick, run!’ they shout as they jump off the library steps. ‘The north-east corner of the hockey pitch!’

All pairs manage to follow the correct bearing and race to the hockey pitch, where they hunt for their first control. The clock is ticking, and I retire to my vantage point outside the library and wait for the first orienteers to return.

A slight breeze rustles the branches of the nearby chestnut tree, and I notice a buzzard circling high overhead. She flies gracefully and effortlessly with no need of a compass. A jet-setting migratory globetrotter, she is led home by the sun and the stars. How small and scurrying we must seem to those who ride the winds and fly across entire continents.

Closer to earth, I notice a pair of orienteers moving off in the direction of the dining room, where the second control awaits. Another pair is hot on their heels. One unfortunate group has already struck off in entirely the wrong direction. Should I intervene, and save them a wasted quarter of an hour retracing their steps? Or allow them to learn a valuable lesson in reading the directions carefully?

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Alas, it is too late. They have disappeared from view.

Sadly, so has the buzzard.


You can find excellent Orienteering equipment at Silva Outdoors, maps and other goodies from Ordnance Survey. Contact British Orienteering for more information.

TB

‘On Your Marks, Get Set… Go Very Slowly’: Competitive Snail Racing

We are gathered on this glorious June afternoon for a truly historic event; the inaugural summer term Hazlegrove School snail race. It is our intention to test their mollusc mettle, to pit snail against snail, and see who will emerge victorious. Will it be this brown fellow, found late last night amongst the flower beds? Or this plucky underdog, prised from the lid of the water butt this very morning? Expectations are high, and the outlook… slimy.

The athletes take their places on the starting line, a small coloured star attached to each of their shells. With their eyes (or whatever it is they have) fixed on the prize of a leaf of lettuce and a juicy tomato, these snails are highly motivated and raring to go. Our racetrack is an A4 piece of paper with 3 lanes drawn on, and the sides folded up to prevent them going too far wrong.

The crowd is silent in anticipation as we give the countdown; 3, 2, 1… GO! The crowd go wild with encouragement from the sidelines. And they’re off! Except, not really. There isn’t much movement to speak of, unless you count the twitching of a tenacle or two. Could it be that the jubilant crowd and fever-pitch atmosphere has put them off and given them cold feet, or cold ‘foot’ at any rate? Perhaps they have shell-shock (ahem).

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But what’s this? Red snail starts to get the idea. He begins to crawl at literally a snail’s pace in the wrong direction towards the edge of the paper. It’s a start, at least. At this point our commentator (a large wizard puppet on the hand of a Year 8) loses his cool and starts shouting at the other competitors to pull their weight and get going. This does the trick, and we see a sudden flurry of movement from the far lane. Blue snail quickly establishes itself as a contender and races into pole position.

The crowd’s affections instantly change, and now poor old Red is reduced to a figure of ridicule as he lies forlorn at the side of the track. Only Gold snail can now put up any kind of a fight. But with Blue only an inch or so from the finish line, he has his work cut out if he wants to earn a bite of the winner’s lettuce leaf. The wizard begins a chant: ‘Gold! Gold! Gold!’ and we all join in.

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However, there are no certainties in snail racing. Just as it seems Gold might have it in him, he comes a cropper and pauses to eat some of the paper racetrack. Blue seizes his opportunity and limps to the finish line, exhausted but clearly pleased with himself. He tucks into his spoils of salad and tomatoes, while all around the crowd celebrates with wild abandon.

‘I know he could do it!’

‘I never doubted him for a second’.

The clock is stopped at 4 minutes and 34 seconds. We stage a podium prize giving, with the winner and runners-up hoisted onto matchboxes. We cannot wait for next year’s race. Already plans are afoot for an extension to the track, and the addition of obstacles and hurdles.

More fun and much less hassle than horses or dogs, snail racing offers something for everybody. And of course, there is never any need for a slow-motion replay. Happy trails!


Snail racing is an excellent activity for children that requires little in the way of setting up. The only tricky bit can be finding the snails in the first place. Comb your garden or school field the night before, or early in the morning, and you should turn up a few. Keep them happy in a bowl with some lettuce and come race day, they will provide enormous entertainment and ask for very little in return.

We raced ours in straight lines, but an alternative method would be to put all the snails into the middle of a circular track and see which one makes it to the edge first. Inspiration from Stephen Moss’s Bumper Book of Nature. You can download track templates and banners from the Woodland Trust here.

TB

Camouflage: Hide and Seek with a dash of The Hunger Games

Camouflage is really the gold standard of woodland wide games. This one has it all; hiding in the undergrowth, dashing through the woods against a ticking clock and catching out your friends and enemies. Why don’t they play this at Hogwarts? They probably do.

Start by choosing someone to be it, or the ‘hunter’. Tell them that they must stand by a tree with their eyes closed, call ‘camouflage!’ and start to count backwards from twenty to zero. You must be able to trust your volunteer not to look when they shouldn’t. Tie a scarf around their head to make sure.

The other players use this time to run into the woods and seek a hiding place. Behind a tree trunk, under a holly bush or in a large muddy puddle. It doesn’t matter where they hide, but all players must be able to see the hunter at all times.

The hunter then must try to spot the others by calling out their location or piece of clothing such as ‘I can see Daisy with her pink wellies behind the nettles’. And poor Daisy is OUT; she must spend the remainder of the game sitting forlornly on the graveyard log. You mustn’t pity her too much, it is her own fault for wearing pink wellies in the woods.

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This carries on until the hunter draws a blank. He (or she) then closes his eyes again and with outstretched arms calls ‘Food and Water!’ He counts backwards from twenty again while the others must run in and high-five his hand, before choosing a new hiding place. The hunter opens his eyes on reaching zero, and if he sees anyone still running, they’re OUT.

If the game is dragging on and the hunter is getting desperate, another trick is to call ‘Numbers!’ He holds up a number of fingers on one hand (his own hand, obviously) and the others have to risk sneaking a look to see how many there are. Anyone spotted peeking is OUT. Players must remember this number.

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For those hardy few remaining in their hiding places, the end of the game comes when the hunter gives up the ghost and calls ‘Game Over’. Survivors must now emerge and approach the hunter, whispering the number in the hunter’s ear to prove they hadn’t spent the last ten minutes asleep under a bush. The winner is the player who managed to hide closest to the hunter without being spotted.

A genius cross between Hide and Seek and The Hunger Games, I have known classes of children to request this game more than any other. It is a woodland classic which rewards stealth and patience over speed or hurly-burly. Play it again, and repeat.

TB

What Lies Beneath: A Dip in the School Pond

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.

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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.

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caldecott_019Staying 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.

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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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Wellies or some sort of waterproof shoes are a must.
  5. Wash your hands thoroughly afterwards!

TB

The Wildest Classroom in the World

On certain afternoons here at Hazlegrove a curious transformation takes place. Classroom walls disappear. School tables and chairs vanish, exercise books sit unopened and pencil cases are left untouched. Uncomfortable school shoes are gratefully kicked off and replaced with wellys. Raincoats are pulled on in anticipation (because we live in England) and we leave the confines of the classroom and bid farewell to the comfortable indoor world.

It must be time for Outdoors Ed! On these eagerly-awaited afternoons, we up sticks and move into the biggest and wildest classroom in the world; the Great Outdoors.

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Once outside, a wriggly line of Year 3’s gather to take a roll call. The children are wide awake, having shaken off their post-lunch stupor and emerged blinking into the sunlight. Like dazed puppies, they are tripping over themselves to get into the woods and make a start.

The ground is muddy underfoot and squelches loudly. A strong temptation to roll down the grassy bank is resisted, for now. We sit down under the parachute and hear the wind swaying tree branches above us and the call of faraway birdsong. The parachute is heavy with rain from this morning’s shower, so I borrow a large stick to jab at the water.

‘Stand under here if you want to get wet,’ I say.

The water falls with a slap onto the assembled seven year olds, who squeal and scream with delight when it lands on their heads and drips down their collars. It is muddy and black and mixed with mulchy leaves but they don’t mind. Getting wet is an essential element of any good Outdoors Ed session. The children look forward to it and understand that it’s not a matter of if, only when. 

Today’s activity involves the children foraging for materials to make tree bridges, to save forest creatures the inconvenience of having to cross the forest floor. Bridges are to be wide enough for two squirrels to walk side by side, and must be able to support the weight of a car tyre that we have lying around the woods.

We go over some useful knots and talk about weaving branches and vines together. Children choose team names and discuss tactics with wide-eyed enthusiasm and the kind of zeal usually reserved for football team selection or getting someone else into trouble. Group leaders emerge and begin to dominate with organisational aplomb.

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Boundaries are explained: ‘Don’t go any further than the brambles that way and the cedar tree over there; you can’t climb trees taller than you; don’t eat anything growing on the trees; and don’t argue over branches. Try not to get stung by nettles. Wasps are best left alone. Off you go!’

The woods are immediately abuzz with activity and chatter. Territories are staked and briefly contested. One of the best things about teaching outdoors is the luxury of space; there is room for all and no shortage of trees and leaves. Arguments are usually solved with a minimum of fuss. There are just so many better things to be doing.

Groups start working together, trading advice and showing off grand designs. ‘We’re making this one from scratch,’ says a budding Christopher Wren. ‘It has steps going up here and these leaves are traffic lights.’ There is a good amount of gloating from one group who discover a ready made pile of wood, now guarded jealously.

The afternoon draws on, and with five minutes to go all that remains is to give a helping hand to a group struggling with string and encourage one or two boys off the rope swing.

Et voilà! The tree bridges are finished, and they are incredible. Some come with supporting branches laid over each other, others with decorative leaves and vines. One has a walkway going in both directions, with a dividing line of string. One appears to be channeling London’s Tower Bridge, with ambitious towers of mud and twigs.

The children are all immensely proud of their efforts, and fairly complimentary towards their classmates’ creations. They are all smiling, with glowing cheeks and muddy hands. It only every school day could end on such a high.

Just enough time for a quick game of manhunt before heading back to class. I turn a blind eye as children take it in turns to roll down the grassy bank on the way.

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Outdoors Ed is the highlight of many a school week, including my own. What a privilege to be able to introduce children to the wonders of nature. Come rain or shine, it is always worthwhile to get out there and bring a dose of fresh air and sunlight into the school day. Children gain an incredible amount from time spent outdoors. There is so much learning going on, and not a textbook or worksheet in sight. It’s what education should be all about.

Now take your wellies off before going inside. Wash your hands please. No, you can’t bring your sticks into the classroom. Or that snail. The same applies to caterpillars.

See you next week.

TB