Children must connect to nature

A RECENT column on difficulties in getting children to play outdoors and learn to appreciate the natural environment led to a big reaction from readers.

Unsurprisingly, it came largely from primary teachers who feel strongly that teaching their pupils about the natural world is vital for the future of the children and, indeed, that of the planet.

Teachers can have a hugely positive influence on children to the environment. And the subject need not necessarily be on the curriculum, because a good teacher can weave it through the other subjects he, or she, teaches.

Tom Lynch, of Ennis CBS national school, Co Clare, says even though children regularly watch wildlife documentaries on TV or DVD, it’s difficult to get a lot of them to really look and see the variety of wildlife in their own back garden, local woodland or nearby boreen.

“Some children who work in the garden, fish or explore with their parents and grandparents, bring a wealth of interesting information to the classroom. Just being outdoors is such a healthy, enriching and learning experience for young people,” he adds.

Decision making and problem- solving skills come naturally with outdoor play and activity, resulting in a much more rounded, mature, wiser and empathetic person, he notes.

“It’s an awful pity the Department of Education and Science doesn’t acknowledge this and encourage games, gardening, bird watching, appreciation and recognition of wildlife in general.

“Their whole approach nowadays is data driven rather than child-centred, which concentrated on the development of the whole person,” says Mr Lynch, a teacher for 33 years.

Donnchadh Ó Drisceoil, from Ballydehob, Co Cork, has also been in contact to voice his agreement with sentiments expressed in the column.

He recalls how during his days in St Patrick’s Training College, Drumcondra, 50 years ago, the education professor would urge that a half hour should be devoted each week to primary school classes in physical education. And the professor also called for an emphasis on nature.

Mr Ó Drisceoil has published a booklet for schools, entitled 100 Physical Education Activities, based on the teachings of Commandant Joseph O’Keefe.

Children are naturally drawn to and open to learning about nature. It’s amazing how even babies react to the natural world. I know of a little lad, called Aidan, who has just turned one year and who has a fascination with trees, birds and cows. Properly nurtured, it’s a sense of wonder that should last for all his days. In an increasingly urban society, however, opportunities need to be created to help children learn about the environment.

But, rather than bamboozling them about complex issues, such as climate change, why not first concentrate on the simple things all around them, as Tom Lynch suggested, and thereby sow the seeds of interest.

Eventually, they will come to understand the difficult problems and, hopefully, come up with solutions.

There’s no shortage of experts willing to give information on ways to guide children’s interest in the natural world, to help them to understand environmental problems and deal with their concerns.

The Australian Psychological Society, for example, believes children should be allowed spend time with nature and find positive things to do for the environment. And, we should find out how much they know about such matters and listen to their questions.

“Young children need opportunities to explore nature and form a bond with it. They need chances to touch and feel and look and smell,” says the society.

“If you live in a city, there are still many ways in which you can help your child experience nature. Even the changing weather and seasons can offer an opportunity for parents to help young children develop a sense of wonder for the natural environment.”

Practical things include picnics in a botanic garden or local park, buying some seeds and watching them grow in a pot on the windowsill, giving children a little plot in the garden to care for, beginning a worm farm in the garden, or starting a compost heap.

The message is that rather than talking at children, children should be allowed explore and discover things for themselves — just like children used to do.

In other ways, today’s children are actually teaching their parents about environmental matters. The Green Flag programme in schools is an undoubted success, with pupils taking home what they learn in regard to recycling, composting, elimination of water wastage, best use of energy and other issues.

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