Not many month-long projects can claim they started with an acorn, but this is a typical inspiration in one Scottish nursery class. It began when early years worker Anne Burns told the nursery class of Strathdevon Primary School in Clackmannanshire how an acorn had hit her on the head that morning. This led to an in-depth exploration of farming that incorporated all aspects of the new Scottish curriculum.
'Anne was out collecting leaves and an acorn fell on her head. She brought in the acorn and the children thought it was highly amusing,' says nursery teacher Isla Lord.
'During discussion of this "event", one child remarked that it reminded him of the story of Chicken Licken where the acorn fell on his head. We read them the story, retold it as a puppet show and then dramatised it. The re-enactment of it was an extension of their basic learning, which we did because they became so interested. We then began discussing the other animals, the cows, ducks and so on. That's how we began farming as a topic.'
Strathdevon Nursery has 18 children in the morning and 13 in the afternoon session and Isla works alongside two early years workers, Anne Burns and Marjon Rodenburg-Abro. Their project is a wonderfully organic example of Scotland's new Curriculum for Excellence and is held up by Clackmannanshire Council as an example of good practice.
Councillor George Matchett, portfolio holder for inclusion, says, 'This shows how a single topic can involve many of the different curricular areas, from literacy and language to mathematics, science, social studies, health and wellbeing and expressive arts - just as children will find they need varied skills in all areas of life.
'I'm particularly impressed with the amount of discussion and planning with the pupils. They were asked what they know already and what they would like to find out about, giving them control of their learning and keeping them engaged in the project.'
Curriculum for Excellence aims to bring learning to life in the way education is delivered for all threeto 18-year-olds. Lessons should be more engaging, inspiring and relevant to everyday life, with teachers helping children really understand and make connections between subjects.
The four capacities children should have at the end of this process are:
- - successful learners
- - confident individuals
- - responsible citizens
- - effective contributors.
The eight experiences and outcomes are:
- - expressive arts
- - health and well-being
- - languages
- - mathematics
- - religious and moral education
- - sciences
- - social studies
- - technologies (see box).
FOLLOW THE LEADER
Pre-school to Secondary 1 have been working to the guidance and standards since this autumn, but as Ms Lord says, 'The Curriculum for Excellence is new, but we've been working this way - following the children's lead - for over ten years.'
Ready-made topic sheets are used to ask the questions, 'What do you know about ... farming?' and 'What would you like to learn about ... farming?'
'We start from a baseline of what they already know and build on their existing learning,' says Ms Lord. 'We write down the questions that come directly from the children - what does the farmer grow, how do you look after sheep, why are there cats on farms?
'These sheets form the basis of our topic, so we try to find out as much as we can about what the children want to know so the majority of ideas come from them. There is also a further question we fill in when the project reaches its conclusion - "What do you now know about ... farming?"'
As Clackmannanshire is a rural area, the nursery staff asked the children to look around the countryside and see what interested them. Some of the children noticed that the farmer was 'cutting things' in the field, so the first topic became grain with Ms Burns bringing in wheat, oats and barley to show the children.
'We looked at them individually up close and were able to establish through discussion and illustration that you get oatmeal from oats. We then ate oat cakes and made porridge and flapjacks in nursery,' Ms Lord says.
Wheat and barley followed, and one mother brought in a sack of wheat grain which was put into the sand tray. This allowed the children to handle real wheat and grains, which they found very satisfying because it was so tactile, with a unique smell and sound. Again, the nursery took this experimentation one step further - actually grinding the wheat into flour using a hand-held herb grinder.
The children then discussed cereals the staff brought in packets and examined the ingredients, so learning about measurements and capacities, as well as using their senses.
Anne Burns adds, 'Farming is such a diverse topic, it brought my attention to things I had never done before, for example, making pasta. Our experiment turning yoghurt into cheese was another activity that really worked. The children loved it.'
'When we covered cows we incorporated the subject into our daily storytelling session, choosing stories with cows and general farm-related characters in them,' says Ms Lord. 'Going back to the planning sheets, one of the questions was "what happens to the milk from cows?" The children had only seen milk in supermarkets, so we showed them pictures of dairies and milking. We wanted to let them role-play dairy workers, so the children collected empty milk cartons and containers. Milk would have gone off quickly and been wasteful, so one of the children had the idea to fill the water tray with watered-down white paint.
'The children loved playing dairy workers and filling up the containers. It was great for their problem-solving, as well as learning about numeracy and capacity.'
One child's mother knew how to make butter using double cream and a dish with a tight lid. By adding cold water and shaking the dish, the cream forms into butter and buttermilk. The children found it a magical experience.
'At the start of each session, we show them what's on offer to do, and it's amazing how things develop,' Isla said. 'With this way of working, one thing leads to another and another and so before you know it, things are going in a completely different direction. You go through literacy, numeracy, using the senses like sight and smell, song and stories, science, health and well-being, covering the whole gamut of learning experiences. The children are learning through experimentation and discovery.'
Tackling the trickier subject of where meat comes from was again left to the children. They did not ask the question, so the staff decided not to pursue it any further.
'As far as they were concerned, a cow is what you get milk from and that's as far as it goes,' says Isla. 'They didn't bring it up, so neither did we. This could be covered if we visit the topic again.'
The next topic was sheep. One of the children immediately said they must get very hot in the summer. The staff showed them what happens to their coats, with pre-prepared pictures of the shearing process.
The same mother who brought in the grain also spins wool. She volunteered to come in to tell the children how she collects wool from fences and from local farmers.
'She showed us unwashed wool and the children said that first you would have to clean it. She explained how she uses hair shampoo to do that!' says Ms Lord. 'Then she showed us how to card the wool. You use two flat pieces of wood almost like two beds of nails on top of each other, and tease the wool out and then it is spun. Each child was able to try spinning fleece into wool.'
The final part of the project was another spin-off from the basic topic as the children decided to open a farm shop. The idea came from a local shop and cafe near to the school, called the Coffee Bothy (bothy is a Scottish word for a farm worker's cottage or shelter). It is a farm shop with a little restaurant and tea room, selling meat, eggs, vegetables and other farm produce.
Ms Lord explains, 'We set up our own replica Coffee Bothy in the corner of the nursery where we had empty egg cartons, our paint milk that we bottled. We used the shop as a play shop with real money. There's a selection of toy coins and we have a very life-like till and a cafe. We used toy bread, vegetables and fruit.'
Marjon Rodenburg-Abro adds, 'It was a wonderful project and one of the children's favourites so far. Their input drives on the topic and we go at their pace, so if one of them brings in a piece of barley or a model combine harvester, we let that spark their imagination and curiosity.'
The Strathdevon example shows that in-depth exploration of a topic can be replicated in any setting. Following the children's imaginations - as dictated by Scotland's new curriculum - is an inspired way to engage them in everyday learning.
The nursery children at Strathdevon Primary School have not been alone in learning about farming. Over the past year, classes across the school have developed links with Wester Dollarbeg organic farm.
Owner Jane Edwards, who is passionate about outdoor learning, approached the school about involving the children on her farm.
That led to farm visits to learn about their way of life and to enjoy the outstanding views overlooking Dollar and the school. Jane also opened her farm to family visits on Wednesdays and Sundays.
From there, classes began regular visits to the farm. They were assigned tasks, from moving fruit trees to planting willow hedging. P1 tended the hens and collected eggs, while P2 on one occasion helped to move the sheep to a new field.
Allocated a plot of land to use as they wished, P3 designed vegetable plots, created pathways using bark chippings and planted a range of vegetables as well as blackberry and gooseberry bushes. The class went on to win third prize for their turnips at the Dollar Horticultural Show and raised £50 from selling their produce at the Scotfest Food Festival.
P4 has reported on events at the farm and created a farm newsletter to tie in with their media project. Parents were also invited to visit the farm to hear about the children's involvement. P5 built a shelter and cooked outdoors in the forest area, which tied in with their topic on the rainforests.
'It's been a wonderful opportunity for our pupils,' says depute head Gayle Penman. 'It was a whole-school project that ran throughout the year, and we're looking forward to carrying it forward this year.'
Among the possible projects for the coming year are making willow tunnels, creating a turf hut to use as hide, building a stone dyke, carving sandstone (that is on the farm), building an outdoor classroom and setting up a wind turbine.
'Much is down to Jane's enthusiasm, her willingness to let the children decide and make plans, and her passion for real-life learning,' says Gayle. 'She is aware that some children learn more effectively in different environments and that outdoor, hands-on activities motivate many pupils.
'The children talk about it being their farm and they always look forward to their next visit.'
The shop: Skills in expressive arts - during free play children are improvising dramatic role play. Social studies - learning how to take turns and make decisions; languages - learning communication and new vocabulary through the objects; mathematics - counting the money, pints of milk, items for sale and pricing the goods.
Grains: Learning sciences - grinding wheat into flour, making pasta and bread from the flour; technologies - learning how a combine harvester works from a model one; sciences - turning cream into butter and yogurt into cheese; mathematics - identifying capacities from cereal boxes; health and well-being - understanding which foods are healthy.
Animals: Religious and moral education through stories - reading the Little Red Hen book which has a strong moral; technologies - visiting chickens and collecting their eggs; expressive arts - painting cows/sheep, collage fields, role-playing dairy workers; mathematics - problem-solving while making and decanting the milk; health and well-being - learning how milk is essential for growth and healthy bones.
Songs: Expressive arts - singing 'Tom Farmer' in costume with walking sticks, toy collie dogs, deer stalker hats and waistcoats; languages - 'Oats, Wheat and Barley' and 'Old MacDonald', learning vocabulary related to farming; social studies - learning about farming rituals from the songs.
For more information on Scotland's Curriculum for Excellence, visit http://www.ltscotland.org.uk/understandingthe curriculum/whatiscurriculumfor excellence/index.asp