Dr Ria Dunkley Sustainable Places Research Institute, Cardiff University
I grew up in a village in mid-Wales and spent a considerable amount of time in the town, but that town was Aberystwyth and Aberystwyth looks out at the sea. My house was separated from that sea by a 120-metre Iron Age hill fort. My grandfather was a farmhand and many a weekend was spent in the rural hamlet where my grandparents lived, hanging around cowsheds, and jumping in hay bales or into the nearby river. The natural world was a crucial play space when I was a child. I always wanted to be outside. I once even walked the 25 miles from my home in Aberystwyth to my grandparents’ home in Llanfair Clydogau, such was my love of being and especially walking in the outdoors. So naturally, like David Bond, creator of Project Wild Thing, I wish all future children to have the same experiences as I did. I want them to experience the joys of outdoor play, to jump in rivers, to visit farms and run through forests.
Now, I am a social researcher at the Sustainable Places Research Institute at Cardiff University, working in the field of environmental education. Yet, my first introduction to environmental education and outdoor learning was through a job at the Eden Project in Cornwall. When I went to work at the Eden Project, I met schoolteachers from inner city schools in the Midlands, who told me that there were children in their schools who had never seen the countryside until they visited Cornwall. As I went deeper into environmental education research, I realised that many children had not grown up enjoying the natural world in the way that I had and that environmental charities were directing their efforts to ‘connect’ young people to nature, particularly in urban areas, through public engagement efforts. Driven by the powerful ideas concerning impoverished relations between human beings and the natural world, put forward by notable authors, including Richard Louv (2008), many organisations and environmental education practitioners have set about finding means to overcoming what Louv described in his book, Last Child in the Woods, as ‘nature deficit disorder’; a condition that poses significant risk to human physical and mental health.
Initially, I was as alarmed by the news of Nature Deficit Disorder, as many environmental charities and educators often appeared to be, for this new and threatening condition would surely not only compromise our own health but would inevitably have implications for how humans approached tackling environmental issues like climate change and biodiversity loss. If people did not know and love the natural world, how would they want to fight for it? And these all, indeed, remain vital questions, which many environmental educators and environmental charities seek to address.
Yet as time has gone on, I have started to look deeper into suggested remedies for our supposed
disconnection to nature, which led me to the work of Bruno Latour (1993) who, in his book, We Have Never Been Modern revealed to me for the first time something that seemed to make complete intuitive sense. We have not become disconnected from a natural world – how could we have become disconnected? We have always been and will always remain in an interdependent state – completely dependent upon and part of the natural world that we observe around us. For Latour, as indeed for many others, we have not become
disconnected from an external, natural world —rather the connections between us humans and a perceived external ‘nature’ have become less visible. For example, in a world where although over half the global population lives in urban centres, we perhaps do not realise that our lives within cities are indeed wholly dependent upon a hinterland beyond that city.
So what, then, is the remedy? Well, if we are not increasingly disconnected from the natural world, then the solutions to environmental and indeed, social crises, perhaps cannot start with re-connecting with the natural world, as the film Project Wild Thing promotes. Rather, what we could do, as environmental educators and environmental charities, is make connections between us humans and the objects of nature visible. Indeed, Latour suggests that in order to tackle ecological and social crises, relationships between humans and nature need to be exposed starting from the “refrigerator to the Antarctic by way of chemistry, law, the State, the economy, and satellites”.
In thinking through what this might mean for engaging children and young people with environmental education and sustainability, the most effective environmental education that I witness does not take young people out into ‘the natural world’, or ‘the countryside’, in the hope that they will develop an affinity with it, but reveals to young people how the natural world is inside their refrigerators, in their I-pods and I-pads, their make-up bags and t-shirts, bicycles and skateboards. The opportunities to make such connections visible within the four walls of our homes as well as within the city limits. For instance, in their book Edgelands, Roberts and Symmons-Farley (2012) speak of how the natural world reveals itself in the canals and woodland strips, the wastelands and ruins of cities, all of which offer fruitful places where we might recognise our connections to other species.
It is true that I grew up closer to the natural world than many people have the chance to and that such experiences perhaps help nurture both a love of life and a love of place. Yet, it is important not to romanticise the rural upbringings of the past, as Project Wild Thing is sometimes guilty of. Even as a child who got the chance to interact with nature a great deal, I still grew up in a technological age, with a Comadore-64 and then a Sega Master System and, living in Wales, there were the inevitable times when the rain would stop all outdoor play!
Parental desire for children to spend more time outdoors ‘in nature’, as the creator of Project Wild Thing expresses, is perhaps nothing new. Yet getting children outdoors is perhaps not the panacea to social and environmental ills that it is, within the film, imagined to be. If we take a leaf out of Latour’s book and consider what thinking about exposing the links between nature and humans means in terms of developing an ‘eco-pedagogy’ (Kahn 2010), we begin to see that it might be necessary to meet children and young people where they are. This might involve witnessing how they already interact with nature, in ways that adults perhaps do not see. This may be in the ‘edgelands’ of canal towpaths and parks, dens and wastelands. In these accessible spaces, as well as within homes and classrooms, we might find interesting ways of approaching environmental learning with children and young people.
Farley, P. and Symmons Roberts, M. (2012) Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness. London: Random House.
Kahn, R. (2010). Critical Pedagogy, Ecoliteracy, & Planetary Crisis: The Ecopedagogy Movement. New York, NY: Peter Lang.
Latour, B. (1993). We Have Never Been Modern. (C. Porter, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard
Louv, R. (2008). Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books.
The Sustainable Places Research Institute at Cardiff University is a meeting place for sustainability science, focussed on exploring innovative solutions for a more sustainable future.
The Research Institute is making new connections in sustainability research. It is about finding pragmatic, policy-led locally-based solutions for individual cities, regions and nations.
Their vision is to provide a new basis for sustainability science. It will push the boundaries of traditional sustainability research and find solutions to the challenges of diminishing resources and climate change.
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This article was first published in NAEE’s Autumn 2016 journal, Environmental Education (Vol. 113). To read more articles like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.