Trout, silver streams and waterfalls- Gordon MacLellan

River source

“There is a silver stream, so cool and fresh as can be…”

We did not have sparkling mountain spring water, running fast and shallow over the beds where eggs lay, golden pearls between the stones, but we did have fish tanks with chilled and filtered water in schools across East Lancashire. 100 Brown Trout eggs sifted down into the gravel of each tank and, across the Ribble River catchment, children watched their progress anxiously and eagerly.

Over the last few years, various projects have improved water quality and widened biodiversity in the Ribble catchment. As part of an ongoing community engagement strategy, since 2014, the Ribble Rivers Trust has been hatching trout in local schools before releasing the fry as fingerlings back into rivers within walking distance of the schools – even in the middle of urban areas like Burnley. The project has continued since then with more schools involved in hatching activities.


“The waterfall, pulling in a curtain of dazzling diamonds…”

Within this wider context, my colleague Steve Brown and myself worked as artists with participating schools in 2014 and 2015 to explore the hatching process and its impacts creatively.

This article will look at our work in the project. A visit to their website will tell you more about the Ribble Rivers Trust, its work and the practicalities of the aquarium project, while the progress of our work can be traced in The Hatching postings on my Creeping Toad blog.

With the creative work, we set out to use music, poetry and visual art to:

  • provide an opportunity to integrate the Hatching work with wider learning
  • use the Hatching process as a focus for river work generally, looking at river geography, water purity and pollution issues
  • promote close observation and understanding of the fish and their ecology
  • offer teachers hands-on experience of activities they might take up for themselves on other occasions
  • offer children creative opportunities where as individuals, small groups and whole classes they could consider their own feelings about and reactions to the hatching process and incorporate emotional responses with river knowledge

Feelings ran high. In all our schools, we were hugely impressed by how involved children (usually Year 6 classes, 10 – 11 year olds, but sometimes younger) became in the growth and survival of their young charges. There were triumphs and disasters. If filters failed or refrigeration units were switched off or lights switched on for too long, casualties ensued and we were writing epitaphs. But lessons were learned and techniques improved and in the second year, survival rates increased.

And us? We bounced in with instruments and card, microphones, oil pastels and pictures, heads full of rivers and hearts full of fish.

Singing rivers

“Rain pours down to wash the sky…”

We composed soundscapes and songs. Charting rivers as rhythms and pace, children created patterns of water movement. Splashing around for an opening line, with Steve, groups would start to build songs. Steve is adept at finding a rhythm that suits that opening line and encouraging a group to decide – blues? rock? a rousing Trout Anthem? a tragic folk ballad?

A pike is on the loose, I’d better swim away,

Hiding under pebbles, that’s where I’ll lay

(Heasandford Primary 2015)

With all our sessions, time was always pressing, so half a class would be there: talking, sharing, arguing rhymes and swapping dilemmas. The others would be with me, reciting rivers and making trout. An hour each, maybe, before an exchange: the song would be handed over, the river poems see a shift-change of bailiffs. For us, it was a great exercise in distilling activities down to an essential set of fishbones.

This was not an exercise for us in teaching about rivers. Classes were exploring river knowledge in their own lessons: our role was to help pupils integrate that knowledge, experiment with it and apply it creatively, really helping the learning process bed down in children’s understanding. We came into this as artists but our role was to make this sort of creativity accessible to teachers and pupils and to offer teachers new ideas to incorporate into other geography themes. To this end activities generally used readily available materials and often involved encouraging children to look at a subject from a slightly different angle: seeing rivers as stories and songs and river processes as voices to listen to, gave us long rhythmic poems. I have done similar projects with other themes, especially geology, where we have told the long slow lives of mountains through dance and created puppets embodying the qualities and attributes of different rocks.

Between visits to schools, we wrote up activities, edited songs and my blog sprouted The Hatching posts which included links to songs so that classes could see and visit their work (they all got copies of songs directly as well) and also see and hear what other schools were doing. Activities were written up as worksheets to provide a resource pack for future school sessions (hopefully not depriving ourselves of work at the same time!).

The worksheet pack can be accessed as a download * and while these activities are focused on rivers, an enthusiastic teacher could give them a shake and use them for other themes.

Speaking rivers

“Trout blend in brown as sand, as stone, as shadows…”

With river pictures as starting points, in my sessions, we built rivers across tables, children shuffling photos to decide on the course of their own ideas. Positions of rapids and meanders, floodplains, estuaries, fast water, slow water, were all decided by the groups. Drawing the feel of chosen stretches of water gave us patterns, movements and then words to work with. We played with the river in words, discarding rhyme for rhythm and assonance and alliteration, reveling in the cascades and ripples of rapids and waterfalls and the stillness of deep pools. Speaking and editing went together and presentation offered more opportunities for improvisation until we had rivers that rippled as pictures and spoken words across classroom floors

Slowing down, running wider,

The river slips into a pool,

Dark, ice-cold water

Deep water, calm water, ripples meandering,

Slow carp in deep pools,

(Stoneyholme Primary School, 2015)


Waterfall drags the river,

Over the edge,

And drops it,







(Holy Trinity Primary School, 2015)

Folded rivers

A more personal option had children building individual pop-up river landscapes, creating moments in the lives of our fish. Using quick card-sculpture techniques (“chairs” and “benches” were instantly adopted as technical jargon), children could use their own aquatic knowledge to build “golden eggs in a gravel redd” or “While little fish swim in weeds and shadows, Safe from otters and children with nets”, or the glory of a leaping trout. The pop-ups were easy to do and a readily transferable skill. They produced pieces of work that stood as individual creations in their own right or, with a bit of cooperation, could line up to unfold a whole set of river scenes. In a spectacular extra session, three classes worked together to create a pop-up river with each folded section being about a metre long so that the finished work ran for 30 metres along the school hall

Rivers on heads

In celebratory, carnival mode, some groups built rivers on hands and heads with fingers full of tiny puppets: fry, frogs, crayfish, mayfly nymphs (groups grew suddenly exacting and technical in deciding just what invertebrates they were going to wriggle) while crowns on heads held bigger trout, great crested grebes and the occasional swan. Side tracking into sharks, dolphins and crocodiles we tried (not always successfully) to discourage.

Ceremonial rivers

Most of our sessions were indoors but as releases approached in 2014, second visits to our Hatching Schools gave opportunities to polish songs and to write farewell poems. The Release then became much more of a celebration with Troutsingers to sing the fry on their way, and a Troutspeaker to recite our poetic speeches, words of advice to a fingerling trout.

“Inhale the future, exhale the past…”

Overall, the Hatching was a great success. Fry-raising techniques improved a lot and the integration of the project into wider school work increased as teachers became more familiar with the opportunities and excitement that the aquaria offered. And us? Half-day art workshops did not contribute a whole lot of time to each school but in talking to children and to teachers it was clear that our visits had a great impact. Songs were sung again – and remembered weeks and months later, pop-ups were displayed, poems recited and techniques used again.

Think I’m gonna cry now, teardrops

Run like rapids down my face

Reflecting on the river, all these

Memories will not float away

(closing lines of the song of a trout released into the river,

Ightenhill Primary School 2015)


Please note: This article was first published in Primary Geography magazine and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.