Image of bumblebee seat, Fernbrae Meadows

A perfect fit

‘Schooldays – the best days of your life.’  So the saying goes, and in Cathkin it rings true. Why?  Fernbrae Meadows, of course. A new urban park, taking the classroom outside and bringing a host of new experiences inside.

Seizing those chances to the full are the teachers at Cathkin Primary School, who turn out to be the most eloquent ambassadors a park could wish for.

Take Lindsay Cruickshanks for example. Her admiration for what South Lanarkshire Council have done with the site is huge. “It’s fantastic, it has made such a difference,” she confirms. “I grew up in this area and remember it as a golf course. It just looks so nice now and it’s somewhere a teacher can go that isn’t just the usual classroom or playground.  I was across this morning with my class and we agreed to call the visit ‘an adventure’. But there was so much learning and things happening within that adventure. For example, because there had been heavy rain the water was flowing really quickly, and the children were using lots of brilliant words to describe the water, its movement, its appearance, and the sounds. As a language exercise it was so natural and spontaneous.”

“It’s more than an opportunity to spot arithmetic or English opportunities”, she continues, “It’s the chance to connect with nature. Going up to Fernbrae Meadows helps draw their attention to things around them in park. We go and talk about we see, what we find, what it might be, and how we should treat it. I think having Fernbrae Meadows on our doorstep has definitely sparked an interest in the natural world for my class.”

“I’m teaching primaries one to four, and today they were intrigued that it was frosty, so we spent time talking about why it was frosty.  We then spoke about what would happen if the frosty areas were in the sun, and talked about why some bits were frosty and some weren’t. This subtle way of engaging children in science is so helpful. And we build on the experiences we have in the park by returning to the class and finding out more about things afterwards.  Mind you, often these questions mean that we are having to go back and find out as teachers!”

Hayley Pal teaches classes a few years older than Lindsay’s and her positive response to Fernbrae is just as strong.  “It’s completely changed how I’ve looked at outdoor learning, and opened up lots of possibilities.” she explained. “Because our playground is so limited in space and is mainly concrete, Fernbrae is a real bonus. The children are really interested in the variety of trees, the different park areas and the wide open spaces. I think they enjoy the different terrain too, the aspect of it being hilly, it’s improved the fitness and stamina of the children.  Whilst health and well-being have definitely benefitted, it’s the unexpected opportunities that really delight me. For example, the kids found an interesting coloured stone up in the park and that gave us three weeks of writing because they were so imaginative about what they had found. They spoke about meteors, gases, liquids and solids all on the back of one discovery.”

“Having that wide open space to run and play in fills them with so much excitement and enthusiasm and for some of our children that’s a welcome contrast because the environment in school isn’t the best learning situation for every single child.  Giving them this other environment to learn in has sparked a lot of excitement for writing, for talking and listening, and imaginative games. 

“I’d echo Lindsay’s sentiments about the positive ‘adventure’ element in using Fernbrae Meadows for teaching. It encourages collaborative activities, and helps create an ethos of team-building and nurturing and it’s been really pleasing to see my class working with Lindsay’s class who are a bit younger. This draws out a caring and supportive element in them and is part of being responsive to the environment and people around them.”

Outdoor learning and time spent in a large urban park bring other rewards.  As Hayley noted “There is a strong nature and nurture link. It has opened up a discussion about looking after the environment because they are really interested in seeing different plants and animals, and they are interested in how we impact them, so making sure we don’t disturb any habitats crops up. Going to the park has sparked a lot of discussion around life cycles, food chains and food webs.”

Mind you it would be a mistake to assume that time spent in Fernbrae is a purely local experience. Lindsay’s class use the viewpoints dotted around the park to interpret and understand their place within Greater Glasgow and beyond.  “When we are up in the meadows we are really interested in getting everyone to use the viewpoints and look down over the city and out to the Campsies,” she explains. “You could see for miles today, there was snow on the faraway hills.  By being in Fernbrae Meadows the children are seeing their wider environment not just where they live, The notable landmarks within the city were clear and we picked out the squinty bridge, the hydro, the Cathedral, all the various landmarks associated with the city of Glasgow.”

Hayley enjoys the way the curriculum can be delivered more creatively thanks to visits to Fernbrae Meadows. “When I visit I have a plan in my head about literacy, numeracy and what I will tick off,” she explains.  “However, you have to be responsive in the park, but going up there seeking an alternative insight into things like technology and science works too. The kids will ask questions naturally on things they see around them, and from one or two questions you can build several lessons. That works well because by being involved in coming up with the subjects they are far more invested in what they are learning”.

There are ‘softer’ skills be gained too.

Even walking up to and around the park can be a useful exercise in impressing safety and awareness. We can say “Don’t go past these trees, or we are working at these stones, and stay on the bridge”, explains Lindsay.  “It gives us really clear boundaries and the various areas within the park are not only good areas to work in, but helpful for transitions for the children. They quickly realise that when we move to a new area of the park it signals a new activity. So rather than going and seeing the Fernbrae Meadows as one place it becomes many small places with many small areas of learning. The kids will ask “Can we go to this space or can we use that area?” which is really nice to work with and I think everyone appreciates that it is so much more enjoyable for teaching when your kids are more motivated.”

Colin McAdam teaches primary six and seven children some of whom are on the autistic spectrum; he too values the park hugely.

“I use the park to support literacy and numeracy, and to teach subjects in the context of everyday life. We like the way the park has been set out, because it can cater for different subject areas for a school. You’ve got areas like the bridge that we have used to ease in discussions around maths and physics. We like the wooded area because that has helped us with descriptive writing and we encourage them to explore describing things like bark, leaves, and the different types of light.

“For me the park spaces offer an opportunity. The pupils that I teach aren’t very often allowed outside in an unrestrained way. So the wide open spaces in Fernbrae Meadows are really good for our children to just round about, feel free and liberated from adult supervision, which I think is really good.”

Looking to the future Colin feels the park is going to thrive. “My class feel a wee bit of ownership towards the park. They are at an age where they are aware that things don’t always get looked after that well in a community. They feel as if they could play a part in keeping things going, so they almost want to be custodians of the park.

“I think they are thinking about the park as a whole and how it doesn’t get affected by litter, dog fouling or anything like that – we’ve been up quite a few times and that’s the big thing that I get from it … they want to be there more. They enjoy it, and are rapidly seeing it as an extension of the school.”

Picking highlights from the many trips Cathkin Primary School pupils have made to Fernbrae Meadows is no easy task. Perhaps Colin should have the final word on how a chance encounter sparked an entire maths lesson. “I recall going up once when it was bucketing with rain and desperately wanting a numeracy focus for the trip. We didn’t really have a precise idea of what we would be doing, until we came to the bridge and noticed they were still constructing things.

“The workmen had laid out all the screws and nails for each plank to be fixed to the bridge struts. I had being doing times-tables things with my class, so we counted up the number of planks, we asked the workmen how many screws went into each plank, which was 6, and we had our six times table.  As it was something like 72 planks it was 6 x 72 for the number of screws they needed.  From this we improvised a lesson “Right let’s see how many parts the workmen will be using.” (And the workmen didn’t even know how many they would be using, which really tickled the children!)  There were ultimately all sorts of things we calculated to do with that bridge, and we quickly forgot about the rain!

“Yes, it was all quite improvised stuff but the kids loved it.  Needless to say in the next maths test we had had 6 x 72 and they got the answer just like that! That’s the type of thing that we do up there. We improvise an awful lot, maths in context, literacy in context.”

Fernbrae Meadows and Cathkin Primary School are clearly mutually supportive. The park offers fresh air, health and fitness, inspiration, nature and togetherness. The school in return offers care, respect, and in all likelihood a generation of new carers for this special green place.