Canals - a resource for schools

Our national network of canals and rivers throughout England and Wales provide a fantastic, easily accessible resource for delivering many aspects of the new geography and history curriculum.

Explorer education volunteer and pupils looking at insects in tub on towpath Explorer education volunteer with school group

On your doorstep

As there are 2000 miles of navigable waterways across England and Wales, the chances are there is one near your school. From urban canals cutting through the industrial zones of large cities to rural canals winding their way leisurely through our countryside, each canal has its own unique story to tell.

There are a number of common themes that can be used as starting points for any local history or geography topic. Our education programme, Canal & River Explorers, can support you through our museums and our network of education volunteers.

Canals in the landscape

Within the geography curriculum children are required to use fieldwork skills to observe, measure and record the human and physical features in the local area all of which can be achieved during a canal visit. You can use our visit planning guidelines from our website to help you prepare for your visit and use our water safety resources in advance of your trip.

In many locations we have teams of volunteers who can accompany you on your visit – they are passionate about their local canal, they can show your children how to be safe and can bring learning to life with stories and local information.

During a Key Stage 1 visit you could collect descriptive words for display, take photographs and encourage children to use all their senses to experience their environment. What did they like / not like about the site?

At Key Stage 2 children could draw a sketch map using symbols for the different features such as bridges, locks and buildings. You can build your own map using the Build a Trail feature on our website. Create a model of your canal. Look at online aerial photographs and maps to put your canal into a wider context – where does it go? How long is it? Which places does it link together?

There is a clearer requirement to study human and physical geography in the new curriculum. Is the canal natural or man-made? Compare your local river or brook with your canal. What are the banks made of?  Is there a towpath? How fast does the water flow? Can boats travel on it?

Collect photographs of rivers and canals – is it always easy to tell which is which? Canals often look like part of the natural landscape but most of them were built around 200 years ago as a transport link and they had a major impact on the growth of towns along their routes. Find out how your canal has changed your local area – look for factories, wharf buildings and street names as evidence of the canal’s use in the past. Carry out a survey of who uses your canal today. Maybe it is used by holiday makers on boats, anglers, dog walkers, commuters or cyclists.

Back in time

In the history curriculum there is a requirement to study a theme chronologically from early civilisations to a period beyond 1066 as well as a requirement to study local history. One approach is to study how people have transported goods from one place to another through the ages.

In early times people used pack horses then horse drawn carts. Canals were built in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century as more goods needed to be carried over greater distances. The development of the railways in the mid nineteenth century led to the demise of many canals although they still played an important role in transporting cargo during both world wars. To bring the story up to the present day our canals are now an important leisure attraction.

Our interactive resource Build a Canal provides a fun way to introduce this chronological theme. It provides a whistle stop tour through the problems of transporting goods before canals were built, choosing the best route for a canal, building the canal and how towns then developed.

Children by the canal in BingleyYou could construct a timeline for your local area showing key dates including when the canal was built. Compare the lives of people who lived and worked on boats with children’s lives today and find out which cargoes were carried on your local canal.

The Building & Carrying Information Pack on our website or the individual canal Factfiles will help you research this information. It could be coal in South Wales, chinaware in Stoke on Trent, ice in London, chocolate crumb in Birmingham or wool and grain between Bristol and London. The story of how these goods were moved around the country is an essential part in understanding how the rich heritage of our canal network shaped the landscape of Britain and it can provide a fascinating area of study for both geography and history.

We hope to see you and your class on a towpath near you soon!

Last date edited: 6 January 2017

About this blog

The Education Team

The Education Team delivers two main learning programmes. Explorers which is aimed at primary school children and uniformed groups, and STEM which is aimed at secondary schools. We provide free, curriculum linked learning resources for teachers and offer a range of outreach sessions to inspire children and young people about our waterways. Our fantastic Education Volunteers deliver sessions on the towpath or in school, bringing the stories of our waterways to life.


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