Thirty ‘Year 6’ (ten and eleven year-olds) sit quietly around 5 tables in the Linklater Pavilion. They have been encouraged to tune-in to their new surroundings after walking from their local Primary school. All is quiet. Expectation is in the air. And then, like the chattering of a dawn chorus, the room bursts into whoops of delight as a photograph is projected. It’s of the same group taken two years previously at the Linklater when they were in ‘Year 4’ as eight to nine-year-olds.
So starts the second experience of Project 468 – a reflective, environmental education approach that is one of several ways the Railway Land Wildlife Trust is helping young people get to grips with their environmental and climate futures.
Following their whoops of seeing themselves as a group two years previously, the young people are handed back a map they made of the Railway Land at the time when they explored the nature reserve by describing it in their own words. This deliberate, exploratory approach set them free to express themselves in their own ways and they delighted in the unexpected freedom while at the same time exploring an outdoor space pretty much on their doorstep.
Two years on and the young people need little encouragement in discussing and sharing their maps, laughing at the phrases they used, criticising their spelling and hand-writing. The hubbub is genuine as we delight in the ability to look back at our environmental learning.
Some of their innocent and childish phrases such as ‘doggy, boggy, soggy’, ‘the magic bamboo circle’ or the ‘swirly, curly hill’ prompt further information regarding the Ouse flood plain, the story of Leighside garden and the creation of Chris Drury’s ‘Heart of Reeds’.
The story behind Drury’s design, based on the pattern of the flow of blood through the human heart, is told by way of a friend of the artist who suffered a heart attack while on a walking holiday when two massive depressions swirled towards them from the North Sea. The patterns in the two events, the swirl of cloud and the swirl of blood (VISUALS available) triggered Drury to look at connections between the two resulting in his famous ‘Heart of Reeds’ design. (VISUAL available)
So starts the realisation that there is more to the Railway Land Local Nature Reserve than meets the eye. For example, the former Leighside garden has resulted in unusual species such as bamboo. Leighside house was demolished in 1944 as a result of those ‘soggy, boggy’ conditions so aptly described by an 8-year-old!
Creatures filmed underwater during the Trust’s very successful Railway Land Live project, in which pupils made live broadcasts to other schools in Sussex about creatures they had found on the site, reveal more of the Reserve’s hidden wildlife.
For example, the sight of a newt, all four legs spread wide, hanging upside down motionless in the water as if in space, brings home just how different their watery world is to ours. (visual available) This and many more images from eels to freshwater shrimps and a great diving beetle ‘doggy paddling’ underwater help put more flesh on the bones of their innocent maps of two years previously. The wonder and delight of the young viewers speaks for itself.
The pupils are then introduced to the concept of ‘Naturegain – in other words, what does Nature do for us in terms of providing things such as wood and fibres or regulating the atmosphere through oxygen from trees or stimulating our senses through bird watching or art as just a few examples. This stimulates a whole new way of exploring the site and seeing it through older and wiser eyes.
And, of course, it lays the foundation for taking land and how we manage it so much more seriously. For example, the newts hanging in water as if by magic are only there as a result of a grant obtained by young people in 2008 to create a pond in the woodland. In fact, young people have played a significant role in the development of the Railway Land from the founding of the first Junior Management Board for a UK Nature Reserve in 1996 to the establishment of a sea level rise working group which will feature in February’s issue of Town and County.
Planning is now underway for the Year 8 (ages 12 – 13) experience of Project 468 to be introduced in January 2021. This will focus on ways of responding to sea level rise in the Lower Ouse valley and the causes and effects of climate change. Encounters with a variety of adults to discuss the ups and downs of their careers within climate science, geology, nature conservation, environmental law and other related environmental careers will help reinforce just how long people have been addressing the problem of environmental change.
All Lewes schools have signed up to Project 468 and once the full cycle is in place, 500 pupils every year will have the chance to learn something new about the Railway Land spread out over visits in the Spring, Autumn and Winter terms.
More importantly, though, and ever increasingly urgent in the wake of the climate youth strikes, I hope Project 468 will encourage pupils to demand much sharper thinking and action not only by Governments but in schools and the curriculum. Local open spaces such as the Railway Land are not only ‘places to think with’ but catalysts for informed action such as questioning the food that is served in schools, recording and taking legal advice on pollution levels in our streets or preparing for sea level rise. •
Dr John Parry is strategic education advisor to the Railway Land Wildlife Trust, of which he was a founder member, and a Senior Teaching Fellow at the University of Sussex.