For World Book Day Snakes in the Heather Public Engagement and Education Officer, Owain Masters shares a story about a recent lesson he delivered using the "Lost Words, A Spell Book", as inspiration

I’ll give you a clue… it rhymes with horse,” I say, gesturing to the prickly green bush with the bright yellow flowers.

GORSE!” the majority of the class call out in unison.

We were standing outside on a sandy track on Ferndown Common. It was an overcast and slightly chilly day in late February. Thankfully, the dark clouds had not made good on their threat and it had remained dry.

The Deputy Head-teacher had approached me to deliver lessons as part of ‘Arts Week’. Over the course of a couple of days, I was to take 6 classes, a mix of Year 2s, 3s and 4s, or 6 to 9 years olds in non-education vernacular, to visit the heathland behind their school and highlight the wildlife therein.

The sessions went as follows; I started in the classroom, using the smart board and lots of pictures to talk all about what makes a reptile a reptile. Once we had established that they have scales and are cold blooded, and that there were big reptiles like alligators and turtles in warmer countries, we spent some time talking about the reptiles that live in the UK. After that, we learned the names of the 6 native reptile species, what they looked like, where they lived and learned a fun fact/super power about each one!

I then asked them which of the reptiles they had heard of before and they had all heard of at least one of the animals before. Many of them had heard of slow-worms and all of them had heard of the adder. When I asked them why, many hands shot into the air to provide me with my answer. They had been reading The Lost Words, A Spell Book with their teachers.

The Lost Words is a hardback book consisting of poems or ‘spells’ and beautiful artwork about native species. It ‘began as a response to the removal of everyday nature words - among them "acorn", "bluebell", "kingfisher" and "wren" - from a widely used children’s dictionary’ … but ‘then grew to become a much broader protest at the loss of the natural world around us, as well as a celebration of the creatures and plants with which we share our lives’ (text from

A quick glance around the classroom and there were clues that they had done some preparation lessons before my visit. I could spot The Lost Words’ piled on a table alongside a poster about adders. Looking around the classroom further, I could see walls covered in brightly coloured paper, affirmational messages and mini lessons. There was an arts table at the back which was covered in clay snakes, unpainted but with scales etched on, the children’s names written beside the one they made.

I asked if the class had any questions before we head out onto the heath. A couple of hands shot up once more, and rather than questions I was, instead, provided with a few facts! ‘The titanoboa was the biggest snake that ever lived!’ followed by ‘I held a python at the zoo’ or ‘I have seen a slow-worm in my granny’s garden’ or something similar!

This was the pattern for each of the 6 classes. Once the super keen future herpetologists had presented their favourite facts, then a couple of more hands would go up and there would be some questions.

Next, it was time for our trip. I cued the teacher who handed out clipboards and, between them and their staff helpers, organised the class to line up with their walking partners ready for a trip outside. With some excited chatter, despite requests from teachers to use ‘our soft voices’, we went outside, the children wrapped up warm with brightly coloured coats and wellies shining.

Once we had exited the school and entered the heath we stopped to look all around us. With a few clues the class were able to spot some plants and animals they knew from The Lost Words; bramble, fern and heather. We walked a little further and played a settling game, using our imaginations to think about what a reptile on the heath would see, hear, smell, taste and touch. By doing this, we were able to talk about some of the other plants we could see and the birds we could hear. We talked about why we might not be able to see the reptiles out on a cold day and how reptiles use their tongue to ‘smell’, all of which required minimal prompting for someone in the class to share. Using the examples, we talked about reptile ecology in a bit more detail.

Throughout the lesson we were using ‘My turn, Your turn’, a repetition exercise to help remember new words. The class demonstrated that they had learned the names of the 6 reptiles that live on the heathland and we also learned about a new plant we could see all round us, gorse. Next the children were invited to draw the plants and animals they could see, like in the book. I had hidden model reptiles within the patch of heath around us and, after I had explained the boundaries, they excitedly set about searching for the reptiles. When they found them, the instructions were to remember what we learned about how each type looked earlier in the classroom and tell me what they were meant to be, then it was drawing and colouring time.

Afterwards, our walk back consisted of a few more lessons about the biology of heathland wildlife and then once back in the classroom we finished with a game to revise learning called ‘Snake or Fake?’. Each class had retained a huge amount of information. I gave them a big poster of the reptiles of the UK to put up on their wall and a copy of ARC’s children’s story book, ‘In search of Old Uncle Blue which features the names of various species and includes lovely imagery of animals and landscapes.

I love delivering cross-curricular lessons like these. It always strikes me that the arts are extremely useful as a tool for teaching scientific concepts, which is, of course, in addition to their many intrinsic values. Furthermore, in addition to biological concepts and creative arts, these lessons explored a plethora of useful skills; listening to instructions, timekeeping, sharing, conflict resolution, assessing risk, critical thinking skills and more.

The Lost Words has been hugely successful in linking art and science. Furthermore, through lessons crafted with use of the book, many educators have helped to foster an interest in UK wildlife that the children might not have had otherwise. In the case of this school, the children and staff alike were delighted that there was such an amazingly diverse and important habitat directly behind them, an area many of the children had only visited once or twice ever. (I am particularly delighted by the inclusion of the adder because it has enabled educators like me to share facts and stories so that children might come to cherish them and be delighted to know they live nearby.) If you haven’t read The Lost Words, A Spell Book yet and spot a copy I implore you to take a look, it is lovely!

Meantime, please do keep teaching young people, in all the profound and far reaching, and all the simple and local ways, about the amazing wildlife we have around us.

With credit to Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris

Snakes in the Heather is supported by a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.