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Learning in a Tiny Forest: a day out at Queensmead Primary School

Earthwatch Europe uses citizen science to monitor Tiny Forest. By doing this, we’re connecting local schools and communities with their Tiny Forest, helping to communicate the need for more wild spaces for people and nature alike, and collecting valuable data to understand the potential impacts and use of Tiny Forest in urban environments. Kesella Scott-Somme, Learning and Engagement Coordinator, talks through the different stages of a Tiny Forest monitoring day. 

In June, members of Earthwatch’s education and science teams headed out to Queensmead Primary School in Leicester to work with teachers and pupils in their very own Tiny Forest, planted on school grounds by children of key workers, with the support of Leicester City Council and OVO Foundation, on the 26th February 2021. The school will help to monitor their Tiny Forest as it grows, collecting and sending our science team data so that we can compare it to other Tiny Forests and understand the impact it is having on the surrounding area.

The teachers had already attended an online webinar about the purpose, background and science of Tiny Forest, so arrived ready to get stuck in! The Earthwatch team took the group of 20 teachers through the four monitoring areas for the Tiny Forest: thermal comfort, carbon capture, biodiversity and flood management. Collecting this information will help our science team understand what impacts Tiny Forest are having on their surrounding areas, how much carbon they capture as they grow, how many different species they attract, how the soil beneath them is changing, and how they change the local temperature and other weather elements.

Teachers get stuck in! Credit: Megan Evans

Thermal comfort

Cities are rapidly heating up, sometimes measuring up to 10 degrees hotter than nearby countryside areas. Trees and green spaces have been shown to have a cooling effect on adjacent city areas, so monitoring temperatures inside and outside the Tiny Forest will help us determine if these small, densely-planted, spaces are cooling. Teachers are able to use these sessions to talk about weather and climate, using our weather stations to monitor the constant minute changes to weather, and talk about longer term trends in climate and temperature increases. Half of the survey focuses on personal comfort, and how it feels to be in the Tiny Forest and outside it. This is a great opportunity to build mindfulness, connect with nature and to reflect on what we might need to do to ensure everyone is able to stay at a comfortable temperature.

Carbon capture

The teachers had an opportunity to get familiar with our tree identification guides, and to learn some of the native tree species. Teachers took a height measurement and then a diameter measurement at 10cm from ground level, using a set of callipers to measure accurately. Demonstrating specialist scientific equipment gives us a chance to explain scientific processes and data collection. The callipers have a screen where the measurements are recorded, so citizen scientists need to be precise with where they take their measurement, and to ensure they are using the kit correctly.

Biodiversity

We have three separate biodiversity surveys, one focused on butterflies, one on pollinators, and another on ground-dwelling animals. Having these different groups allows us to explain how different animals use different spaces, introduce the concept or improve understanding of habitats, and provides the opportunity to learn some species identification. Biodiversity surveys promote accuracy and patience, and carefully and clearly recording data, which is important for data collection and school work too.

Flood management

Flood management is all about understanding the health of the soil inside and outside of the Tiny Forest, and working out what potential it has for soaking up excess water. It includes working with another piece of scientific equipment, the penetrometer, which requires precision and care so as not to damage the equipment, and to get an accurate reading. Analysing the soil is a very hands-on task - it’s an opportunity to talk about texture and colour, bringing in art elements, and also maths, as we talk about the percentages of the different elements that make up soil.

Now it was time for the kids to get involved!

Over the day we met with four different year groups, each with 60 children at a time. The children were split into two groups, with one group heading off outside of the Tiny Forest to have fun with a nature search, and the rest of the children getting the opportunity to take part in monitoring their Tiny Forest, and then switching over.

Our first group had a look at the weather stations, after taking some time to think about how each of them felt about the current temperature, we had a look at the weather station screen. These machines are really sensitive and change constantly, so it was a good opportunity to talk about averages, and how we might get the best reflection of the current weather when its changing so constantly. We also got a chance to talk about the difference in temperature and wind inside and outside the Tiny Forest, even though our trees are still really small, already we can see differences in these measurements among the trees and outside on the grass.

Our second group got stuck in with carbon capture. Our first task is to check that all the trees with tags have the right species name attached, a fantastic opportunity for the children to learn how to identify different tree species, and what kind of features they’re looking for. We learnt that colour isn’t very reliable when we are looking at trees, because they change so much! We need to look at leaf shape, and other features to see if we have the right tree. Once we knew what tree we had it was time to get measuring. Starting with the height of the tree, the children then got a chance to use digital callipers, an important piece of science equipment which accurately reads the stem diameter. The children recorded all their data, learnt a bit more about the different tree species, some have a lot of stems, some have just one, and they’re all growing a little differently.

Our third group got to have a look at biodiversity in the Tiny Forest, exploring under the biodiversity tiles to survey ground-dwellers, and anything living on the trees. We lifted up the biodiversity tiles placed throughout the Tiny Forest and found, lots and lots of ants! Ants play a really important role in forests, ants create tunnels running underneath the trees which break up and aerate the soil, and also add nutrients as the ant’s store food and other bits throughout their nests, these act like mini compost heaps providing food for the trees too. Some ants also eat the predators of trees, caterpillars and other animals which eat away at the leaves and branches, which can help protect the tree from harm. We were very excited to see good populations of ants taking up homes in the forest, as this will be good news for our trees, and the children were really excited to see this too, especially as when the slabs were lifted we could see the tunnels the ants made and even some of the workings of their nests. The children also found lots of other creatures around our forest, including spiders, aphids, beetle larvae, and ladybugs.

Our last group had a look at flood management. This was a chance for everyone who wanted to get hands on and muddy. First up, we used our penetrometer to test the compaction of the soil, this nifty little instrument is simple to use, and the children had a lot of fun testing it out on various different areas and seeing the difference in soil compaction. Then the muddy bit! The children started by taking a little section of soil, and work their way through our soil health chart, which includes seeing how long you can make your soil ribbon, and adding water to feel how gritty your soil is. We had an excellent opportunity to talk about percentages, our groups decided the soil was 45% gritty, and 55% smooth. After determining our soil types and recording the information carefully, it was time to clean up and head back to school for the end of the day.

Getting the teachers involved in the Tiny Forest and showing them how to monitor and use the space for outdoor education was fantastic. It was great to build their confidence and knowledge of the monitoring techniques, as the teachers really helped us to engage the children with the activities the following day to collect our data.  It was also really encouraging to see the children and teachers alike connecting with the Tiny Forest. We left the school full of hope that the Tiny Forest will become a real tool for learning and inspiring outdoor experiences, and that the children will continue to collect important data for our scientists to use, as their Tiny Forest grows and changes.

Register your interest in establishing a Tiny Forest at your school here: Tiny Forest

 

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