Alex White, a Year 8 pupil and wildlife blogger asks who sparks the interest in nature and the environment in my generation? Is it teachers, parents, television, social media or friends?
In my case the passion was sparked by a number of sources merging together around my primary school years. This then led to me starting my own wildlife blog in May 2013, when I was just 10 years old. My blog mainly concentrates on what I see around my local patch on a daily basis. These animals, birds, insects and plants are there for everyone to see if they have the interest to look. I rarely go looking for something in particular but instead note and photograph things I come across. It could be something like a ladybird that everyone recognises or something I have to go home and look up, such as a type of beetle.
In February 2014 I was chosen by BBC Wildlife Magazine as a Local Patch reporter, which really encouraged me to learn more about what surrounds me in my local area. I am now in Year 8 of secondary school and my interest in nature, the environment and blogging about it, is only getting stronger, but this has a lot to do with the encouragement from my followers and connections I have made and a few individuals who have continued to influence me.
In the beginning it was my parents being interested in nature and taking me out walking with our dogs or badger watching. Also one of my Godparents owned a falconry so I was always surrounded by nature and it felt a big part of my life. Two particular DVDs stick in my mind that my parents bought me, ‘Through the Garden Gate’ by Stephen de Vere and ‘Halcyon River Diaries’ by Charlie Hamilton James, as well as popular television shows like ‘Deadly 60’ with Steve Backshall. During primary school, one particular teacher really helped connect us to nature through lessons such as art, English, geography and science.
On a personal level, having nature, animals and photography as a hobby and a passion is not seen as being ‘cool’, especially now as I am in secondary school. It is an odd hobby to have and I don’t talk about it to many of my classmates. My friends are into ‘gaming’ for which they have ICT clubs at school, others like football, again supported by lunchtime and after school clubs. There are even chess clubs, book clubs, Scrabble clubs, but no nature clubs, no environmental clubs where I could meet other people with similar interests. If the school promoted these interests, it may seem less ‘uncool’.
On a much more positive note, I have had lots of encouragement from social media such as Twitter. I have made some good friends with whom I share points of view on environmental and animal welfare issues. Although many of them also comment on how they hide their hobby from their school friends for fear of being picked on for being ‘different’.
Many celebrities like Ben Garrod and Chris Packham are extremely encouraging and are happy to advise and help my generation foster their interest, as well as groups like ‘A Focus on Nature’ who are actively supportive to young people.
Ben’s thoughts on this are:
“I genuinely believe we are a generation of naturephobes … where we don’t like getting our hands muddy or our feet wet. If we turn our backs to nature, we risk never knowing the world in which we live. We need to follow those lucky few who are always muddy, scratched and exhausted from a day outdoors”.
There are also some other great ways of connecting with other people and learning about your environment through organisations that carry out citizen science projects. I have been on some great surveys and courses where I have had incredible fun and learnt a lot as well. What can schools do better to spark the interest and encourage children to be interested in Environmental Education?
Chris Packham’s answer is:
“Schools currently offer the best opportunity for young people to engage with wildlife. You see, they are a trusted environment and everyone, every class, creed, religion, goes to school. We all should have an equal chance of meeting and becoming interested in life. And because too many parents think that the countryside is a dangerous place for kids to be in alone . . . school should be the answer. But is it? I’m not sure because for me young people have to touch it, feel it, get bitten, slimed and stung by it to actually falling in love with it. And in most schools they are too busy running around with sanitising hand gel. How I hate that stuff! The schools need to allow their pupils to get in touch with wildlife – that is the answer.”
My earliest memories of learning about the environment are from pre-school and going to watch lambing on farm visits, going apple picking and making hedgehogs from clay and sticks. In primary school, I can remember bug hunts and a river visit, but that was down to the enthusiasm of an individual teacher. Mrs Barker’s attitude was:
“It’s incredibly important that children learn about nature, as one day they will be responsible for it! It’s wonderful when children are inspired by what we do in schools and then build on it themselves, like Alex has done. Hopefully the hard work that teachers all over the country are putting in will help children to feel more connected to nature and interested in what they can do to protect and enjoy it.”
Although since I have left they have started a Forest School. I also really enjoyed some of the projects which I always made an excuse to do something connected with nature. Now, after one year at secondary school I realise that the older I get, the less hands-on and physical the interaction with nature becomes in schools. Unfortunately, most people will look at a photo of something like a butterfly and think “what a beautiful picture”, or be told to read a paragraph about an animal, a mountain or a tree and not learn much from that. But if they actually went outside and watched a spider build a web or leaves fall off a tree; watched different birds eat different foods from a feeder or an ant climb up a wall; then that interest would be one hundred times greater, encouraging them to ask “why?” or “how?” and then follow that up by wanting to learn more.
Once someone like me has learnt to connect with nature we then want to learn more about it, learn how to protect it and share that knowledge with others. Stephen de Vere sent me a few words that sum up why children should be taught about nature in schools:
“Inspiring just one youngster is to me worth infinitely more than influencing a hundred adult minds. I wish I knew how to make the natural world a popular topic across all age groups. It would probably solve the world’s problems in one go!”
I do wonder if my parents hadn’t been interested and hadn’t let me watch nature programmes whether one teacher in one school would have been enough encouragement to pursue my hobby and hopefully my future career.
This article was first published in NAEE’s journal, Environmental Education (Vol. 111). To read more articles like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.