Nature and ‘narture’: plugging children into their environment

Gordon D’Arcy’s manual for schools taps childrens’ creativity to engage them with the natural world

Sat, Jan 25, 2014, 01:00

‘The one that really fascinated me was the turnstone. It was really cool the way it actually turns stones over, looking for sandhoppers and – what are they called? – larvae.”

Ailsa Clarke, who is 10 and attends Scoil Íde in Salthill, Galway, is talking the day after a class trip to the nearby seashore. It was led by Gordon D’Arcy, the bird artist, author and matchmaker between schoolchildren and the natural world.

“The day was brilliant,” says her classmate, Isobel Ryan. “We got a walk, fresh air, and learned all about birds. Then he taught us to draw them when we got back. I drew a starling, a seagull, seaweed, grass and weeds, all in the one picture.”

Aisling Walsh, who is also 10, agrees. She says two note-takers in the class recorded 26 types of flora (“that’s things like holly and bushes”) and 27 species of fauna (“that’s living things, like oystercatchers”) on their walk.

Like Ailsa, she was intrigued by the turnstone, a small wading bird that’s often very approachable but also well camouflaged. Once you’ve seen one, you’ll start to notice them almost every time you walk a stony shore in winter. Back in school, Aisling learned to draw waves coming up on the beach, and a grey crow dropping a mussel on the stones to crack its shell.

Has the day out with D’Arcy made a difference to her? “Yes,” she says. “When I walk along the seafront from now on I’ll look out for things more.”

It was the first time their teacher, Amanda Bowe, had worked with D’Arcy, though he is a regular visitor to the school. “I’m from Salthill, I’ve walked the strand a million times, and today I’ve seen the same landscape completely differently. Gordon’s expert eye brings science to life. He shows how ecology and biodiversity actually work. And then it’s great the way he brings it all back into the classroom, by helping them draw what they’ve seen, but using their own creativity as well.”

D’Arcy is probably best known for scholarly but accessible books such as Ireland’s Lost Birds, a study of our extinct species, enhanced by his evocative scraperboard illustrations, and for books related to the Burren, where he now lives. But his book Narture, published by the Heritage Council for the Heritage in Schools scheme, is different. It is a practical manual for engaging children with nature through art.

Celebrating nature

D’Arcy challenges the “negative context” in which children often learn about nature – climate change, rainforest destruction “and a plethora of other disastrous scenarios”. “Nature should surely be celebrated,” he writes. “We need to create the circumstances whereby children can rediscover its subtle but ever-revealing magic.”

D’Arcy’s books have always shown awareness of the intense relationships between culture and nature, in folklore and in poetry, and he uses these elements, and the Irish language, in building contexts for children to discover landscapes, plants and animals.

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