Geology at The Coombes School

28 August 2010 · 4 comments

in Developing School Grounds & Outdoor Spaces, Science Outdoors

Rocks and landscape projects tend to be hugely popular with children. There is a natural attraction between stones and kids. When visiting The Coombes School, perhaps the most impressive development of all, is the geology trail. This is no ordinary collection of rocks, but epitomises the whole ethos and approach of the school and how it values the world in which we live.

Unlike many geology trails where the rocks are lumped together, the stones around The Coombes School are scattered throughout the grounds. Just finding them all is a feat in itself!

The words below are not mine, they are written by the school staff for their Geology Calendar 2006. Each year, their school calendar has a different theme (yet another good idea) and I just felt the description gave their trail justice in a way I could not…

The Coombes School Geology Trail

“What are rocks? They are shelter, building material, a link to the most ancient history of the earth. They are beautiful; immutable. They are landmarks. Rocks define and change spaces.

The Coombes School have been creating a geology trail to offer the children and adults at the school another dimension to learning and teaching. Our rocks represent the major geological regions of the British Isles.  We offer them to children as social places, places for games, ideas and imaginative play. In our outdoor classroom they offer endless opportunities for informal and formal learning out of doors.

The seasons bring changes of temperature, colour and growth but the rocks carry on being themselves.  Their weathering is often too slow for us to see and teaches us to respect the power of nature.

The geology trail expands our belief in museum education, where collections of like things stimulate interest. We can use rocks to find out about whole world geology and connections between great land masses.

Dressed slate from Central Wales

These 6 slate slabs were ‘dressed’ for billiard tables. When the tables were broken up, the slate was positioned as a screen between the upper and lower pathway. The stones have been inscribed with a guide to living, ‘we care for each other’. There is a peace dove, a Celtic knot and an inscribed alphabet for touching.


Four millstones from a working mill in Wiltshire represent a part of an age old system to extract flour and render grain fit for consumption. Basic to our appreciation  of stones is to see them as part of everyday equipment in building, tool making, road construction and essential commodities.

The Sandstone Sarsen Boulders

We have two groups of these intriguing stones that were carried enormous distances by the moving ice during the glacial period and then left behind when the ice melted.  Their texture has been scoured over time to smooth curves and pits with friendly holes to explore.

Cornish Granite Blocks

These were part of the sea wall at the Cardiff docks. When the wall was restructured the blocks were sold off but these became an important part of our site. They are used for play, seating and as an exhibition space.  They are very tactile and in the sunlight they sparkle. Their original purpose is echoed in their arrangement.

Yorkshire Limestone – Coombeshenge

Human beings have always been fascinated by large stones, making them into places of ritual and worship. Inspired by the stone circles of Stonehenge and Avebury, we acknowledge our pagan past and the skills of early engineers, mathematician and astronomers.

Scottish Granite

The largest single structure is the set of rocks from Scotland. This pink granite comes from the quarry which provided the fascia for the new Scottish Parliament building. Set up to accentuate their mass and grandeur they function as a place of shade and shelter and a hiding place, dominating your field of vision as you look towards them from the field drive. It feels like part of the mountainside where it originated and it shows how natural materials fit into any environment.  These are also popular with our sheep who like to shelter beneath them.

Cotswold Stone

These are 10 stones arranged along the path that links the infant and junior schools. This parallels the way that Coombes children grow in age and development and move onto the next phase of their school education when the right times comes. The stones are exactly one child’s stride apart. Bark chippings have been added to make them nestle into the environment and create a bank.

Photo supplied by Di Blackmore, Forth Environment Link

Red Sandstone

This distinctive sandstone came from Penrith in the Lake District. It gets sun from the south and west and frequently has eye catching shadows on it and cast by it. The half face was carved by artist Euan MacEwan and the lines on the face represent children’s hands and the lines on them! The lines of destiny and use, and the identity of each individual is in some way etched into the face so that it mirrors all of us. The lines around the eyes are a highlight and were inspired by the whorls of our fingertips. This figure represents the interaction and exchange between all of us: our cooperation with each other and with the Earth.

Conglomerate rock

These were the first boulders in the Geology Trail. They are sited in the Nursery garden so that our youngest children can enjoy these mini mountains, exploring their proerties and characteristics. By wetting them, we can see the different components – area that sparkle and catch the light, the range of colours and textures. Conglomorate rock is sedimentary, formed by layers and mixtures of sand and pebbles, laid down by sea and river action.

Farington Sponge Rock

The earliest plants colonised the rocks. They were lichens and mosses and these plants over many thousands of generations were the soil producers. The rocks are the fossilized remains of billions of sponges which multiplied in the salt water lagoon around Faringdon. Children can get an insight into the changes which have shaped our world from their direct contact with these rocks. These rocks can only be found in two places in Europe  – in Oxfordshire and Greece.”

Have a look at The Coombes video which shows children hunting for fossils in the sponge rock here.

The geology trail was created over many years and relied upon the determination, finance and efforts of many individuals and groups, not least the former head teacher, Sue Humphries. Here’s the complete list:

Cornish Granite Steps – November 1996
Mendip conglomerate rock – November 1996
Faringdon sponge rock  – March 1998
Purbeck limestone (King Arthur’s Seat) – May 1998
Yorkshire Limestone (Coombeshenge) – November and December 1998
Derbyshire Gritstone (The Dolmen) – March 1999
Penrith Sandstone – November 2000
Hornton Bluestone – May 2001
Australian Convict Rock – June 2001
Sarson Boulders – July 2001
Millstones – September 2001
Slate Standing Stones – September 2002
Slate Screens – December 2002
Scottish Pink Granite – March 2002
Sarsen Boulders – June 2004
Cotswold Boulders – October 2005
Red rock from the Great Rift Valley (Cradle of Civilisation) – June 2005

I hope this post has given you some ideas about geology and how to introduce it to children in a friendly, exciting way. The Scottish Earth Science Education Forum has recently created a Primary Earth Science Outdoors Pack. It is free and will help you get going with rock project outdoors with plenty of ideas, activities and lesson plans.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Abbie August 29, 2010 at 01:26

Love the idea of just playing with rocks. We have some big landscaping boulders in our yard and we may need to spend some time examining and exploring these rocks.


foundationteacherindubai August 29, 2010 at 03:29

The geology trail is fantastic Clearly a lot of planning. thought and effort has gone into this project and I think it is equally amazing that your school community has pulled together to make it happen 🙂


Juliet Robertson August 29, 2010 at 08:37

If only it was my school community! The Coombes School is a state & church funded school that opened in 1971 with Sue Humphries as the Head Teacher. She remains a School Governor and is actively involved in the school.

I visited for one day 2 months ago. I just photographed as much as I could and made notes. I wrote most of The Coombes posts in the fortnight after the visit whilst everything was fresh.

I know the acquisition of a geology trail is beyond the scope of almost all schools but I think it is a true testimony to the uniqueness of this school community. It also demonstrates that school grounds evolve of years with love and care and good use. This is what every school can do. Take good care of their grounds and use them on a daily basis for learning and play.


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