Do you remember the classrooms of the 1970s and ’80s? Often there was a small table in the corner dedicated to nature finds that you or fellow classmates may have brought in to show the teacher. A pinecone, a snailshell and a bird’s nest would all be labelled and displayed proudly and would often be the inspiration for a lesson on the seasons, lifecycle or rudimentary biology. Sometimes the nature table corner might emit a malodorous whiff as something decayed, or may become rather dog eared and dusty, but these little collections of finds were immensely inspiring to my budding interest in nature as I grew up in suburban Liverpool.
In a modern day classroom there seem to be less scope for spontaneity in the timetable and being inspired by a nature find, even for keystage one teachers, seems to be less possible. Nature tables have become a rarity due to health and safety risks. In some ways this is understandable. In Stephen Fry’s autobiography Moab is my Washpot he describes bringing a deceased mole to school in triumph, hoping to be victorious amongst nature table contributors, only to have it explode in a horrifying way before he’d reached the school gate.
How could a collection of hagstones, a vase of blossom, a vole skull and a lichen-covered twig fail to spark the interest of a classroom full of children? For those that remain impassive add a couple of coprolites (fossilised Jurassic poo) and they’ll be queuing up to learn where these intriguing items came from and a little about how and when these creatures lived or where they can spot the blossom that has been collected.
A hundred years or so ago most children, especially those who lived in rural areas, would know at least some of the names of the plants in their local hedgerows or the birds that visited their gardens. This knowledge is increasingly rare now. Taking a walk to find out more about the plants and wildlife in the surrounding parks or countryside teaches both adults and children about the diversity in the habitats near where they live or where they are holidaying. It’s so satisfying when I can identify a new species in a local hedgerow or learn a new birdsong so I can recognise it whilst out on a walk.
Making collections or taking nature walks connects people to the seasons. It’s a wonderful way to counter the gloom that can sometimes descend at this time of year. There is more the find out there than you might imagine and getting outside to let sunlight into your eyes boosts serotonin levels. Often an early interest in nature can lead children towards science. My lifelong interest in biology, which culminated in a degree and some time in academia started by identifying plants and weeds in my granddad’s garden and taking nature walks when very small.
Long-term blog friend and newish Instafriend of mine Emma Bradshaw shares my passion for collecting specimens whilst out on walks and is as keen as I am for children to learn a little more about the habitats around them. She has started a wonderful hashtag on Instagram – #thenaturetable, encouraging others to share what they might have found and the collection that have made whilst out and about. I’ve already been joining in and hope to add to my knowledge in the coming year. Armed with field books, Observer guides and perhaps a flower press perhaps we can make 2016 the year of the nature table.
Do you make nature collections? Might you have fond memories of nature tables when you were small? Might you fancy joining in with Emma and I? We’d love to hear…