Let them love the land before they need to save it
Parents and teachers’ concerns about health and safety have disconnected children from their land
WHEN THE term “nature deficit disorder” was first coined by writer Richard Louv in 2005, it sounded laughable. Only in America . . .
However, the US perspective on modern living has a habit of creeping up on us and, just seven years later, it doesn’t seem such an over-statement of the problem after all. Parents’ fear for the safety of their children combined with the lure of screens indoors means there is an increasing disconnect between youngsters and the natural world.
The effects of this on their physical and mental health are seen, it is argued, in rising figures for childhood obesity, attention-deficit problems and depression.
Some 60 per cent of Ireland’s population now lives in cities or towns and, even in rural areas, children are so often driven from A to B, they may have little opportunity to engage with the landscape around them.
Even if they live in “one-off” rural housing, their lifestyle may be closer to their city peers than neighbouring children growing up in farm families who are focused on the land.
Farmers’ markets, which have become increasingly popular in urban areas over the past decade, go some way to bridging what was an ever-widening gulf between the consumption of food and its origin. Consumers have more interest now in “local food” and meeting the people who produce it.
Schools can learn a lot from farmers’ markets, according to David Sobel a US academic who promotes place-based education. He was in Ireland recently to address a two-day symposium entitled From Apathy to Empathy – reconnecting people and place.
“Schools should be more locally grown – reflective of the culture, heritage and nature of that area rather than being homogenised,” he tells The Irish Times during a break in the symposium, which was organised by Burrenbeo Trust in Kinvara, Co Galway, and supported by the Heritage Council.
At the same time as children have become more cooped up at home, so have schools become more isolated within their own walls – for similar reasons.
Concerns about health and safety limit the chances pupils have of being allowed outside the classroom, never mind beyond the school boundaries.
By making the walls between schools and their local community more permeable, education becomes more grounded, more concrete and more accessible, argues Sobel. Primary school children should be learning the geography of their neighbourhood before they start learning the geography of the whole country or other continents.
For instance, drainage patterns in the playground can model the structure of river systems, he points out. It is an ideal way for children to see how water always flows downhill and helps them understand how meanders and tributaries work.
“We are always overlooking the miniature world that is available to us right next door,” he says. “We are neglecting those kinds of opportunities as teaching tools.”
Director of teacher-certification programmes at Antioch University New England, this was Sobel’s first visit to Ireland. He says he is hearing that the lack of freedom for children to enjoy play outdoors has become a problem this side of the Atlantic too.
“All those free play experiences in the natural world – building forts and picking your own paths in the woods – are the basis for environmental values and behaviours in adulthood,” he points out. “If we don’t have kids out doing that stuff, we are ensuring they will not be environmentally responsible when they get older.”
Let us allow children to love the Earth before we ask them to save it, Sobel wrote in the Orion Society Nature Literacy Series, Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education back in 1995. He suggests this is perhaps what the 19th century US writer and philosopher David Thomas Thoreau had in mind when he said, “the more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core, and I think the same is true of human beings”.
In place-based education, place refers to the cultural and built environment as well as the natural environment. It is about changing the relationship between schools, which tend to be over-reliant on standard text books produced for the national curriculum, and their immediate locality.