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…
My two boys, particularly the eldest (7) loves nothing more than to drape various bits of our house with pots and dishes containing bones, skulls, dead beetles and dried dragonflies. Last year we found a very fresh dead mole, who was kept under a pot in the garden until there was nothing left but fluff and bones, and the skull was duly teased out and kept. Pretty sure this tendency stems from me, as when I was about 8 my collection of skulls began with rabbit bones found bleached in the sand dunes, moved through burying squirrels and even an owl in the back garden for the skulls, and culminated in the full skull of a Dartmoor pony, carried miles across the open moor after a harsh winter, which lived on a bedroom shelf until things started dropping out of it and it was banished (by my mum) to a biology teacher at school. I am now a Biology teacher…and children don't bring things in any more, they just demand to know things about gory bits of bodies.
Must make more effort with plants…will try to instigate a nature table homework…
Belinda Norrington says
I have fond memories of nature tables and projects at primary school and have always loved picking up shells and pebbles on the beach or twigs and pine cones etc on walks. I always have little vases and jugs full of foraged beauties, flowers and leaves in flower presses and sketchbooks on the go – such a source of joy. I'm not a scientist by training, but learning about plants and gardening is a lovely and important part of my life. Great idea to encourage kids to engage with nature in as many ways as possible – I hope some youngsters get involved with and enthused by the hashtag project.
Marigold Jam says
Back in the '50s I don't think I went on Nature walks as such but we all walked to school in Nature and we just seemed to imbibe the names of plants and which ones were poisonous and which ones could be sucked to get the nectar out (deadnettles and honeysuckle since you ask)I think the fact that children are driven to school these days means many of them never come into contact with anything natural as even in a town there would probably have been something pushing up between the paving slabs back in my day. Today's chidren probably know a lot of things we didnt learn but they are also missing out on some too and losing the ability to see their place in the greater scheme of things perhaps. Good luck with the Instagram nature table.
I was astonished when I went to the Ashmolean last year to find bird skulls included in Tudor and Stuart stumpwork. It makes Damien Hirst look a bit of a plagiarist…
As you say, once upon a time, botany and even animal skulls were all much more commonly known..
Daisy Jones says
So many fond memories of the nature table!
… and a new fan of your beautiful ig, feed too.
We live in Dorset and as such have hedgerow loving plants that are not seen in other counties!
Will be following the nature trail with much interest!
lp_ lisa says
I really can't remember any nature table at school, I feel aggrieved & deprived! I do remember many a happy summer holiday spent camping in Southern England. Camping in the 70's was not feather duvets & hot tubs. It was basically a field. With a tap. On the long country walks to the farmhouse or the beach Mum taught me all the names of the wildflowers we saw in the hedgerows. My flower press & scrapbook were full by the end of the holidays. Happy times. Thanks for the memory jogger Em. Lovely blog once again x
What a lovely idea. I remember making nature trays sometimes after a walk when I was little. It was always on a particular walk, I remember it well. Black ash buds, fluffy pussy willow buds, catkins. You've brought back some good memories, and I shall look forward to watching what you collect over the year. CJ xx
Yes do remember the nature tables and I'm always thrilled when I come across a white skeleton of which I have a couple both smaller and larger. The curriculum these days does seem more rigid. Do love you nature pics and of course always a fountain pen.
PS I will be in your neck of the woods March/April time, visiting my sister.
My kids were both great fans of the nature table and random sticks and feathers had to carried home to take to kindy. My son was an avid collector and as he turns 21 today, you have reminded me of the little boy he was and all the wonderful mysteries he kept in his pockets. Thankyou.
Vintage Sheet Addict says
Love this idea, I was so fond of the nature table myself as a child. Sadly I can't capture their beauty like your good self! 🙂 xxx
What a lovely post. I went to school in the sixties and one year we always every Friday afternoon the whole class strolled round the school field and remember we were all disappointed because the only times we didn't go was if it was raining or if there was snow on the ground, and we were lucky enough to be taught the names of wild flowers, and the birds the flowers that were poisonous. I will hopefully pass onto to my grandchildren my love of nature.
Celia Hart says
I remember our whole class going on nature walks from the school on the edge of the Fen village, along the paths beside the lode to Lord's Grounds – meadows awash with wildflowers including cowslips and orchids and quaking grass. Sadly the fields have now been ploughed and are sown with crops.
Learning plant names when you are tiny means they'll be part of you forever.
Handmade in Israel says
I love this post! I vividly remember nature tables at school, and had so many collections of "stuff" at home, it was untrue. My youngest in particular has a love of plants, shells, pine cones and more, but sadly the mobile phone gets rather in the way at times!
Molly Watson says
I have just read your lovely blog. How strange, this morning, very first thing, I dusted off my flower press. It was made for me by my Dad, must have been over sixty years ago!!! Never to old for flowers.
Kriss MacDonald says
One of the big goals I have in bringing up my twins is for them to learn and appreciate nature and the huge benefits that come from it. We constantly go on walks spotting and identifying plants, trees, flowers and more. They're also now often better than me at recognising birds that come to our garden.
We spent two years in the US and one of the things I loved about their school was one of their classrooms filled with nature finds, bones included. This classroom was used for their 'Arts and Science' classes – yes, the school combined the two topics together so that all the children were in love with these classes whether they were creative or scientifically minded or both.
Coastal Ripples says
You'll be pleased to know that even up until my retirement last summer I regularly had nature finds on display in my year 2 classroom in jersey. I love being able to name flora and fauna. Like the sound of the #naturetable. I will be joining in. Thank you. Barbara X
so very lovely Emma. x
Annie Cholewa says
I posted on my blog about the power of nature tables a few months back, there's always something of the sort here … currently I see a teazle head, some pebbles, and a feather that's waiting to be identified. This post of yours is a paen to paying attention, I love that 🙂