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Environment & ethics   |   Climate change   |   Biodiversity

Wild about learning

Persuading my children to sit inside and log on to Google Classroom while the sun is shining has been getting increasingly difficult since enforced home-schooling began a few weeks ago.

So, I’m swapping sums and sentences for a more child-led ‘fresh air’ approach. Yes, we’ll complete obligatory maths and English tasks, but we’ve set up a tent as our outside classroom, and we’re using lockdown learning as an opportunity to connect more with nature and notice springtime unfurling day by day. For my four- and eight-year-old, that might translate to drawing on the patio with chalk, bug hunting in the garden or transforming an egg box into a rainbow nature trail.

If only this curiosity about the wonders of the natural world could be nurtured more fully on a daily basis once they return to the classroom. Environmental education isn’t always a guaranteed priority in mainstream schools, something that a new GCSE in natural history is looking to change.

Producer and writer Mary Colwell has been campaigning for this GCSE since 2009 because she felt there was a huge gap in children’s knowledge about plants, animals and ecology once they leave primary school.

The proposal is even more significant in light of research by Professor Miles Richardson at the University of Derby, which shows that levels of nature connectedness in children dip sharply between the ages of 10 and 15 years and can take 20 years to re-establish.

“Understanding the natural world is the first step to caring about it, and we desperately need is people who know what they are looking at and how to record it,” says Colwell, who believes that learning about the natural world is not only fundamental but also opens up possibility for more citizen science.

“Only then do we get the data that we can actually use to monitor what’s happening and make concrete conservation plans. This natural history GCSE takes us out of the laboratory where you can control things and puts kids outside where life is so much more complex and ad hoc.”

Wild about learning
'Understanding the natural world is the first step to caring about it.' Image Nick Cunard.

Colwell is quick to add that this nature connection certainly isn’t limited to those living in the countryside: “You’d probably see more wildlife in a well-greened up inner city than in an open field – and this GCSE is designed to be accessible to everyone, wherever they may live.”

Once final details have been agreed by the Department of Education, Colwell will develop course content with the OCR exam board and a team of expert botanists, zoologists, entomologists and so on. The GCSE could be available to students from September 2022, and is part of a big push to ‘green’ the curriculum.

Of course, benefits go way beyond learning and environmental psychologist Dr Eleanor Ratcliffe says that we all need to prioritise a daily dose of nature connection: “Spending time in nature actively can help people to feel better if they have had a stressful or negative experience in their life.

“Nature connection can improve people’s mood or reduce anxiety, affect your heart rate and reduce high blood pressure.” Ratcliffe says that lockdown is a chance to think about the nature that’s closer to home: “Even something as simple as finding your favourite tree along your street, just looking at pictures of nature or enjoying views out of your window.”

In terms of home-schooling, time outdoors offers a welcome break for many, and a new ‘Vitamin N’ campaign led by a coalition of top environmental and mental health organisations aims to connect more families with nature through activities such as the RSPB’s birdsong radio, the Wilderness Foundation’s badger cam, nature yoga and nature hunts. 

Wild about learning
Nature-based learning can cover a range of subjects from art to science. Image Anna Turns.

Ratcliffe explains how this framework for learning about nature can be really useful: “Education is often a resource-intensive process and being out in nature can give people a chance to recover their cognitive ability. Also for younger children in particular, being outside is associated with play, so it might be easier to motivate them to participate in an activity outdoors that might incorporate some science, some literature or art – any setting can be turned into an educational one.”

Paul Martin, previously a teacher and now education team leader for Devon Wildlife Trust, is “thrilled” by the possibility of a GCSE in natural history but argues that we need to build up to that right from early years to secondary and beyond.

He set up the Wildlife Champions scheme 10 years ago to embed nature in the curriculum and teacher training so that educators could feel more confident to teach outside and include more nature and wildlife in the classroom. Now, Devon Wildlife Trust are making their resources available online for parents currently home-schooling.

“Classrooms are great but all children come alive outdoors and it’s all about inspiring them to see there is another way to learn and we also want to inspire teachers, and parents, and show them that environmental education can easily be integrated into their day,” says Martin. “It’s also a reminder that nature is a gift to you at this difficult time.

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