Mary Colwell is an award winning radio, TV and internet producer winning 14 awards over the last 5 years, including a Sony Gold in 2009. She is also a radio presenter and feature writer for The Tablet.
She now produces Saving Species on Radio 4 which covers a wide range of environmental and wildlife issues.
The recent New Networks for Nature conference (Nov 15th-17th) highlighted the increasing problem of the lack of young people actively engaged with the natural world. 90% of the audience were over 40 and that probably holds true for the many nature meetings that are held all over the country every week. There are certainly exceptions but love of nature seems to be the preserve of older, educated white people. Why? There has been much hand wringing about this and no one has come up with a good solution.
The National Trust this year launched their Natural Childhood report, written by Stephen Moss. It is an excellent summary of the problems caused by the disassociation of children from the world around them. It draws from the book “Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv in 2005. He coined the phrase that has come to define the problem: “Nature Deficit Disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.”
Study after study supports this. The range of benefits to children from being active outside and learning about the world around them range from physical and mental health improvements to an increase in a child’s understanding of danger, physical space, imaginative thinking and so on. Not to mention awe, wonder and delight, which are very difficult to get from computer games. It may also produce citizens who can make informed choices about their environment, which will be essential for the future. If we are to make the right – and maybe hard – choices to keep ourselves and the natural world functioning, we will need buy-in from everyone from all ages and from all backgrounds.
The problem is however that the National Trust only really appeals to the same subset of people, namely white, educated middle England. The photographs in the report show exactly that. The thorny problem remains – how can young people from all kinds of backgrounds and cultures be inspired to care?
Pondering this over the last year or so I came up with the idea of a GCSE, (soon to be O Level,) in Natural History. This would specifically concentrate on observing, naming and recording nature. Children would be taught basic field skills – how to observe a creature in its own habitat, what it eats, how it behaves and how it interacts with its surrounds. Flowers, trees, grasses, mosses lichens and so on should all be included. The course would teach how to collect data in such a way that it is a valuable scientific resource. The changing nature of the natural world through the seasons is vital. What changes, why and when? How does it compare to past records? This is a course designed to produce competent naturalists who know the basics.
The course I believe could also include the history of natural history recording and in the UK. We have a long, rich tradition and are probably the most studied islands on earth. The many wonderful naturalists of yesteryear can once again be brought alive and their rich writings explored. Encouraging youngsters to produce their own nature writings I am sure will produce work that is both surprising and challenging.
As part of the school curriculum a Natural History GCSE can be available to anyone. City parks and gardens are often as rich as country fields – anyone can do this. And why not take it further to an A Level?
One academic I discussed it with thought it might be “too soft” for universities to consider for entry. Maybe – but not everyone wants to go to university and increasingly they wont, so does that matter? Someone else wondered if children from inner cities would be at a disadvantage? There are parks, canals and green spaces in most places; even tree-lined streets can be used. I don’t think this is prohibitive.
For me the benefit is the open access through a recognised structure that can be made available to all. Who knows who it might inspire – and for some children it might be the only time in their lives they will relate to the natural world in this way. The biggest problem I see is getting enough teachers who have the necessary skills to teach it.
Is it a good idea? Do you think it can help bridge this gap and help more young people engage with nature? There’s one thing for sure, something has to happen and maybe this will one of the ways to build hope for the future.