The Speckled Wood Experience

Anthony Sergeant is the Deputy Head Teacher of Banks St Stephens C of E Primary School and describes himself as a very amateur naturalist!

“Mr Sergeant, Mr Sergeant! We’ve found something!” Ryan shouts with the utmost excitement, in fact I dare say young Ryan has seldom been this excited at 9.46am on a Wednesday for a great while.  On inspection Ryan indeed had found something to justify his excitable mood, that something was a rather dormant and particularly well behaved speckled wood butterfly sat dutifully on the index finger of Pedro, who has probably never been this still in his short life.  Gathered around the nervous statue were various children of various Primary School ages, all enchanted by what many keen wildlife watchers may consider as a fairly middling butterfly.  It was in this moment I knew that my idea, preparation and current execution of our Wild Outdoor Day was a success.  This mildly mannered butterfly had captivated these children.  It was unfamiliar, it was on their doorstep and for Pedro it was in his hand.  This wild encounter was fueling the fire of intrigue in the gathered crowd.  “What is it?” asked Mackenzie, “Its a Moth!” shouts Harvey.  “What’s a Moth?” inquires Kayla.  Every bone in my naturalist body wanted to expose them to my knowledge of this mysterious insect, however I restrained myself.  I played the game, I faked my ignorance and set them the challenge of finding out as much as they could about this new and exciting creature; and they did.


Thankfully the day was filled with intrigued and excited children, suddenly exposed to the wild world on their doorstep.  Our semi-rural Primary School sits on the edge of a busy coastal town, and is blessed with its own small woodland area, a school field and adjoining hedgerows.  The children experienced art in nature, building homes for nature and even worm digging (with brilliant worm identification guides from Riverford Farms).  It was a day that I could call a success and one that I will repeat on an annual basis. 

Ever since that day however, I had a niggling worry that while undeniably successful the need for an enrichment day to essentially ‘launch’ nature into the children’s lives was in itself mildly worrying.  I have a keen interest in wildlife.  It excites me, it calms me, it fascinates me and while I am no great expert I believe within my own circle of family and friends I have a expansive knowledge of the wildlife on our doorstep.  Obviously I don’t expect to ‘teach’ the children in my school the same knowledge, I simply hope to inspire an interest, a chance for the children to develop a care and a thought.  With our natural world being increasingly put at risk, most recently the state of nature report stated that 60% of our natural fauna and flora has declined in the last 50 years, surely future generations should be educated on the importance of the wild world that is so tremendously vital to our physical and mental health. 

Being a Deputy Head Teacher, I have a say in the curriculum being delivered in our schools and on review there are of course units of Science and PSHE that focus specifically on the outdoors and the natural world, but nothing in the form of a ‘Conservational Study’.  In an ever changing world the Education system is always trying to essentially ‘guess’ the skills needed for the workplace of the future.  However in our role preparing future generations for the future of our world, surely it doesn’t take a fortune teller or a climatologist to envisage the need for a deep rooted care and practical understanding of the environment in which we live.


While the statutory need for this connection with nature has not yet been developed, there are roots of ‘rewilding’ begining take residence within our school system.  The Forest Schools initiative is helping teachers plan and deliver lessons for subjects across the curriculum in an outdoor setting.  Creative teaching is able to link different subjects through the vehicle of wild drivers, in my own class I delivered a whole Summer Term topic entitled ‘My Wild Summer’ which not only took advantage of Science teaching objectives but linked neatly to English were we explored Wind in the Willows and in Maths children examined types of angles in the woodland - nothing makes Acute and Obtuse angles more interesting than a Giant protractor, some trees and a morning out of the classroom!  I have no doubt that there are teachers and schools up and down the land that utilise their outdoor spaces in a far more effective way than us and therefore it comforts me to know that within a sea of subjects all scrambling to prepare children for the rigours of adulthood, there are educators and schemes that exist to grow nature within the hearts and minds of our young learners.


Sadly a teacher’s life is filled with barriers.  Nature usually means outside and being outside means risk, or at least the assessment of risk.  Taking a class outdoors on a beautiful Summer’s day comes with the risk of catalysing symptoms of the multitude of allergies that exist within any cohort of children across the nation.  The exploration of a wild place comes with the risk of injury, and controlling children who are used to being placated within four walls, suddenly let loose on the hidden yet very visible world outside their window is no simple task. 


Despite these barriers and the lack of a very obvious presence in our curriculum for a targeted study of the preservation and management of our natural world, there is no substitute for the what I call ‘The Speckled Wood Experience’.  The best teachers don’t tell, they don’t instruct, they barely even teach, they introduce ideas, they inspire interest and they conjure intrigue.  All of these acts transpire to create independent learners, and one thing we would all like to envisage is a generation of independent minds that not only know what a Speckled Wood Butterfly is, but also know where it lives and how we look after it and help it thrive.  When the Speckled Wood finally decided to depart dear Pedro’s index finger it left the woodland to a chorus of excited and barely containable young people, amazed by what they’d found in the scattering of trees that live just outside their classroom window.  In the future we plan to set up cameras in the woodland, to show the children what really does exist on their doorstep.  Can you imagine the atmosphere in school if a fox arrives? I can, and its a wonderful thought.


By Anthony Sergeant


Deputy Head Teacher of Banks St Stephens C of E Primary School and very amateur naturalist.