We must branch out to teach new generations about nature
A major survey this week concluded that children are becoming increasingly disconnected with the natural world – Martin Hesp thinks reversing this trend will be difficult, but vital.
There are many remarkable things about our planet that you couldn't make up, but which we modern folk in the Western world take utterly for granted.
Take birds, for example. If you were a science fiction writer describing another world and you invented some creatures that flew effortlessly about singing to the inhabitants down below who couldn't leave the ground, the idea might come across as very weird.
But we see such wondrous creatures every day – they even populate the concrete jungles that are our cities – and yet millions of us will shrug: "It's just a bird, I don't know what type, and I don't really care."
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You could go on highlighting strange and amazing things which occur naturally around us, but which we have forgotten to notice or care about. Take trees as another example – imagine our science fiction writer describing vast giants which, over lifetimes that extend for centuries, pump out the oxygen which other creatures on the planet need to exist.
If you'd never heard of trees, you would say the concept was too far-fetched. Yet these brilliant things exist in great numbers throughout our gardens, streets, parks and countryside. But how many of us can name even half the species we see around us?
It's an important question – and the answer, alas, is fewer and fewer. We are becoming disconnected with the vital, life-giving, life-sustaining, dazzling and amazingly interesting nature that surrounds us, but which is suffering thanks to our own activities.
That is the main finding of a three-year research project, undertaken by the RSPB, which found that only 21 per cent of children in the UK have a level of connection to nature that can be considered "realistic and achievable".
The report's findings were released at an event at the Houses of Parliament this week amid growing concerns that children are being given little or no contact with the natural world and wildlife.
The RSPB believes this lack of connection is one of the biggest threats to Britain's nature – and it would be difficult to disagree. Earlier this year, 25 wildlife organisations, including the RSPB, released the groundbreaking State of Nature report, which revealed 60% of the wildlife species studied have declined over recent decades.
People working for these organisations believe that a closer connection between children and nature would help ensure they develop "deeply held feelings and attitudes towards wildlife and the world we all live in, and as a result will care enough to help save it in the future."
The upside, if there is one, is that big organisations like the RSPB are launching campaigns to address this sorry state of affairs. The downside is that these good intentions – and the official, well-meaning programmes that may be invented to help cure the disconnect – might face a wall of indifference.
Half a century ago, when I was a kid growing up in the Westcountry, we were taken on nature walks from our primary school to a place called Chissety Wood. We loved these outings, but I can't recall we learned much. For my own part I was just fascinated by observing our elderly Victorian-esque teacher out of doors. The idea that the ramrod-stiff old lady could put on Wellington boots and climb over stiles amazed me much more than the rookery we went to see.
Our awareness of the natural world was stimulated on a more prosaic and daily basis. We knew about it because we played in it.
I learned about sticklebacks and minnows because, aged five or six, my brother and I left our house and went "down the stream" where we caught such hapless fish in little nets and took them home in jam jars to live in our tiny aquarium where they inevitably died. The same applied to the butterflies we caught and took home from the hillside next to Whitepits Wood.
And when the creatures quickly perished in our care we learned not to do it any more. We discovered for ourselves that these things needed to be in the world they were designed for – not in some little boy's selfish homemade zoo.
Aged just five or six, we began to understand – in the most simplistic of ways – the basic concept of nature conservation. And here's the most important thing: this bit of learning occurred because we discovered it for ourselves – the ideas weren't rammed down our throats by some boring grown up.
Can you imagine kids being able to do any of this today? Not a chance. For a start, no child I know of would be allowed to wander in to the countryside alone aged five or six – especially if the adventure included areas of open water.
Then you have to ask how many UK children actually have a fish-filled stream just across a field or down a lane? Only a minority.
So reconnecting children with the natural world is going to be a difficult task – especially when you add to the equation that nowadays they are lured by exciting and interesting indoor activities on screens that would have been beyond our wildest dreams.
We were lucky enough to know nature because we were a part of it, not occasional visitors to it. Today that factor is going to be harder to address.
But it is possible. For example, last year I reported on one Devon school that is developing the Scandinavian idea of the "woodland classroom", where children spend a day a week out among the trees. I joined them for a morning and thought it was a brilliant scheme.
If we are going to reconnect tomorrow's human beings with the planet that is their home, we need such measures to be the norm rather than one isolated case of common-sense innovation undertaken by one forward-thinking school.