Getting children back in touch with nature

As the BES continues to investigate equality and diversity in ecology, a recent focus group on the topic noted the decisive role exposure to nature plays in inspiring young people to pursue ecology. A particularly engaging school field trip or a fascinating family adventure can be a powerful tool in creating a lasting experience for a child that could develop into a keen interest and even a vocation in ecology later in life. Access to nature, however, is not equally distributed amongst children and this could well be a contributing factor towards the current lack of diversity seen amongst ecologists.

Last Tuesday, the Field Studies Council (FSC) collaborated with the RSA to host an event entitled Reaching Into the Outside as part of celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of the FSC. A panel of speakers – Dr Maggie Atkinson, Dr Jo Twist and Jonathon Porritt CBE – gathered to consider environmental education over the next 70 years. Discussions included a childhood spent largely outdoors, a vision of a future in which sustainable living is finally a reality and a defence of an ever-increasingly screen-based culture. As the debate was opened to the floor, questions and comments often came back to the worrying lack of interest that today’s generation of children seem to have in regards to the outdoors. Barriers to outdoor experiences, such as safety fears and constant stimulation from technology, are increasing and extra efforts will be required to address these as technology continues to advance. Perhaps a greater challenge, however, will be finding ways of widening access to environmental education amongst children that haven’t traditionally participated. Children of a low socio-economic status, for example, may not have access to green areas in their local area and not all schools are able to afford to provide their pupils with inspiring field experiences. Cultural barriers may prevent other children from engaging with the outdoors.

Whilst Dr Twist, the CEO of the Association of UK Interactive Environment, argued the place for games in encouraging children to engage with the outdoors, a recently launched film and campaign has begun a nationwide appeal to swap screen time for wild time. Project Wild Thing, a powerful feature-length documentary made by David Bond, was released at the end of October with the aim of initiating a movement that will see children reconnected with nature. Acknowledging the incredible influence that marketing has on children, Bond appoints himself the ‘Marketing Director of Nature’ in a bid to sell nature as fun, free and the ultimate adventure.

During the film, Bond travels around the country meeting children from a diverse range of backgrounds. Kids on the Isle of Eigg in Scotland frolic for hours in woodland enjoying the thrill of climbing a tree whilst children in London are frightened of dangers and have access to only microscopic patches of green. Bond argues that disconnect with the natural environment is a phenomenon occurring amongst all children regardless of background; whilst this may well be the reality, there is undoubtedly inequality in access to meaningful outdoor experiences with some children facing more barriers than others. Methods used to inspire children to learn more about nature will need to be developed differently for children of diverse backgrounds. Encouraging a child to climb a tree or roll down a hill is all very well, but what if that child’s playground is a concrete one?

When considering ways in which outdoor education for young people can be improved and maintained over the next 70 years, it will be crucial for equality and diversity to stay at the forefront of strategy for the FSC and any other outdoor environmental organisations. If those lasting and inspiring outdoor experiences cannot be made available for a more diverse range of children, future generations of ecologists will be as homogeneous as the present one. If diversity is not encouraged and facilitated, talent cannot be maximised and the future of ecology may well be at risk.