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Outdoor classroom helps Co Tyrone school kids get the dirt on nature

Tomorrow sees the official opening at a Co Tyrone school of an outdoor classroom that comes complete with bug hotels and wildlife cameras that's the first of its kind, writes Jenny Lee

Erin Tracey, Conor Ward and Lily Mae Monaghan investing a slug inside their new Reco Box outdoor classroom at St Mary's Primary School, Dunamore

A CO Tyrone primary school has become the first school in Ireland to install an outdoor eco classroom which encourages children to connect with nature.

St Mary's Primary School in Dunamore, near Cookstown, installed the £16,000 Reco Box, a recycled former shipping container, which has a green roof and habitat walls to attract different species, at Easter.

Officially launched tomorrow with the local priest's blessing, the children have already enjoyed exploring their Reco Box, observing and collecting bugs, catching butterflies and playing in its mud kitchen.

"Although we are a country school, our nearest green space is three miles away, so obviously walking to it isn't an option," says Shaunagh Lambe, P4 teacher and school 'world around us' co-ordinator at St Mary's. "The Reco Box brings the outdoor environment to the children. It's a different learning experience and brings nature, maths and literacy to life.

"The children are so thrilled and are so eager to get involved. They think the arrival of the Reco Box is bigger than the royal wedding," she laughs.

With St Mary's already a green flag eco school, the children there also have a garden area to grow strawberries and green beans, which will later be served for school dinners.

All 185 pupils have been involved in preparation for the Reco Box. "Primary one have been growing flowers for around the Reco Box, while the older children have been tidying and weeding the garden and preparing the land. It's hands-on learning. Some were reluctant to get dirty and encounter bugs, but at the end they all agreed that working together was so much fun and it has instilled a great work ethic in them," says Mrs Lambe.

The Reco Box provides a unique outdoor classroom, ideal for hands-on teaching and growing school initiatives. Wood-drilled logs on the side of the Reco Box attract bees, butterflies, woodlice, beetles and ants, while the brick and rock features will attract spiders, toads and frogs.

St Mary's Primary School in Dunamore has become the first school in Ireland to install the Reco Box outdoor classroom

When it inevitably rains, the classrooms's indoor learning space enables pupils to learn outside of the traditional classroom yet still feels at one with nature as they view 24-hour video footage of the wildlife captured on the rooftop cameras, learn about life cycles and experiment using binoculars, magnifying glass and nets.

Research has shown that outdoor learning benefits children physically, emotionally and intellectually. Working with earth and nature helps children explore their senses, think creatively, observe and nurture life and reduce stress levels.

Mrs Lambe says she has already seen the children benefit from the outdoor learning in terms of improved behaviour and self-esteem and children have translated their new-found love of nature into their own home environments.

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