Unveiling plans this week for a new National Curriculum, Education Secretary Michael Gove has been criticised for introducing endless lists of spelling, facts and rules, and sacrificing understanding for rote learning. The Wildlife Trust claims Gove is proposing to remove teaching about the natural environment from the curriculum.
Learning about the natural world helps children to connect to the huge environmental issues that face us. If you don’t know about something, it is very difficult to care about it.
But I would go a step further. Children should be encouraged to spend more time learning about the natural world, but instead of doing this in a classroom, I believe that the emphasis should be on children experiencing the natural world first–hand.
Children spend less time outside – fewer than 10% of children play in wild places compared with 50% a generation ago. Schools could lead the way in getting children back into nature.
Filming my documentary Project Wild Thing, I visited a school in Eltham in South East London. I spent time with a class of 12–‐14 year old pupils, and talked about nature. I asked them what they thought about the outdoors. Their reactions were overwhelmingly negative.
One girl, Carly, said she doesn’t spend time in nature because she hates getting her clothes dirty. I asked what would change her mind. Her idea for a nature jumpsuit that you could wear and get muddy was a good one. But she did stress that it would have to be a cool outfit before she would wear it. And if it was cool, she probably wouldn’t then want to get it dirty…Many girls thought nature was dull and boring, and other said they like it outdoors when it is sunny but mainly preferred to stay at home.
When discussing nature in the classroom the pupils did not have anything good to say about being outside. But when we went out into some green space nearby, they instinctively found fun things to do. They looked at trees, found bugs, spotted birds and made daisy chains. Their faces lit up and they connected to a childlike sense of adventure and joy.
In a recent interview, play expert Bob Hughes suggested to me that, by keeping them indoors, parents are preparing their children for the world today – the world that parents and teachers know. But the world is fast changing, and we should be equipping children for unforeseen future challenges. To do this we cannot rely on teaching specifics. Rather we need, as often as possible to switch off the computer, and let them develop the flexible skills to deal with an ever–changing, unpredictable environment. Nature is the perfect, and the only good location for such development.
By keeping children away from complex, natural environments, from experiencing risk, from learning to play imaginatively we are not denying them the chance to develop fully –‐ to become autonomous and independent.
Author Jay Griffiths told me, “If we constantly tell children what they can and can’t do then what we are teaching children is that they can’t depend on their own judgement, they can’t practice their own opinion, they can’t take the initiative about looking and seeing for themselves whether something is too unsafe to try or fun enough to take the risk.”
In the current system, children rapidly conform to the rigour of commerce. They become economically productive. They learn to receive marketing messages that play on their vulnerabilities – that tell them that their own sense of worth should be bound up with owning this device, wearing that style, or eating that chocolate bar.
DH Lawrence had it right:
How to begin to educate a child. First rule: leave him alone. Second rule: leave him alone. Third rule: leave him alone
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