Falconry in school grounds – a unique approach to environmental education
As part of our Erasmus+ project ‘Bioprofiles’, which looks at engaging students in place responsive and enquiry led environmental education, I have been fortunate enough to visit one of the most unusual and exciting schools any of us at LtL have experienced.
Štiavnické Bane school is situated in the centre of Slovakia, providing state education for nursery through to secondary age for about 230 children.
What is unique about this school is their use of falconry as an embedded and curricular led learning experience for all students. In addition (although not unique at all) there is wider animal keeping, rainwater re-cycling and growing of food in significant quantities. This is all within the school grounds.
Nursery children will start riding horses on an adult’s knee from age two, quickly progressing to some assisting with all animals and growing. By mid-primary all students are involved in the animal care and learning, and by late primary falconry is compulsory for all.
Students ‘adopt’ one of the 35 birds of prey, from small Kestrels to Eagle Owls and Bald Eagles. During holidays and weekends a range of current students, ex-students, families and residents are involved in the care of the animals. Pupils can choose to interact with the animals at break times. There are 4 specialist teachers and support staff to maximise the learning and ensure high standards of care.
As well as the birds, the school had four horses that are ridden in their own riding area of the grounds. The exotic house had two cayman, multiple turtles, iguana and three inquisitive Cotton-head Marmoset monkeys. The children had less contact with some of these for obvious health and safety reasons, although the unit had two classrooms at its heart, equipped with many learning resources about the animals.
The skill and confidence with which the students were caring for, moving and flying the birds was noticeable. They clearly spend significant time with the animals and were proud of their heritage – the whole school had window decorations. The student demonstrations included close-proximity flying by Harris hawks, super-fast Saker falcon dives, a silent flighted Eagle owl and the impressively sized (and powerful) bald Eagle.
All this effort relates to the school using the animals to meet a few aims:
- Engaging pupils with their cultural heritage in a practical way
- Engaging children first-hand in nature, in an ongoing and place-relevant way – ‘Think local’
- Through the more exotic animals developing a much wider awareness of nature – ‘Act global’
- Supplying a future workforce to the current raptor handling jobs such as keeping runways and city skies clear across Europe.
The school also had practical projects related to water conservation (through rainwater harvesting and green walls), growing herbs and vegetables for the school canteen and local conservation issues. These further enrich the pupils learning experiences – they had to calculate pond sizes, write local walk or natural heritage guides and research historical information about falconry. We struggled for exact detail, but it seems the work is all core curricular led – the learning is not some ‘extra’ or ‘one-off’, it is embedded and cultural in the school.
The commitment of the school staff, students and community struck me, to place engagement with nature and cultural heritage at the heart of the education experience is costly work in both time and money. Yet the staff we spoke to all confirmed the benefits outweighed the challenges. The pupil demonstration was excellent, but more importantly their confident and quiet work with the birds when they thought we were not watching was telling. The whole school had a sense of pride and deep engagement with the process and the benefits for the pupils.
So when someone at school suggests that the class hamster is a hassle, send them this picture of a pupil flying an Eagle Owl.
Please visit the school website here
At LtL our staff are fortunate to visit such schools and nurseries, to see practice outside of everyday. We also get to see many hundreds of nurseries and schools across the UK delivering great practice and spaces for children’s play and learning. If you would like our staff to share this knowledge with you, look through our training courses and make a booking.
I would like to point out that I make no judgement about keeping the range of animals they have in captivity – it is a cultural decision, and they adhere to a high standard of ethics and certification via CITES where appropriate, the Local Authority, and a partnership with other zoo’s. I want this article to focus on the students learning.