Helping children reconnect with nature

A new children’s book aims to introduce young children to Irish wildlife


We hear a lot nowadays about a lost connection with nature. Our grandparents were able to identify different trees; they recognised bird calls; they were more attuned to the seasons; and they knew the medicinal value of many of our native plants. But did you ever wonder what our children now know about Irish wildlife?

I work on natural history productions for television and radio and am sometimes asked to visit primary schools to talk to the children about wildlife. During the hour, I play games, let them hear animal calls and give them a close-up look at birds’ nests, dead bats and deer antlers, but at the start of the presentation, I begin by showing them photographs of some of our mammals. It still amazes me that when you put up a picture of a badger, so many of the children shout out “Skunk!” They have no idea what a stoat is and have never heard of a pine marten.

Kids today know much more about dinosaurs – animals that went extinct some 65 million years ago – than they do about our native animals. These clever kids are actually able to tell you lots about Hammerhead sharks and snakes and crocodiles, but show them a picture of an Irish pygmy shrew and they’re dumbfounded.

But what is even more surprising is that despite this lack of connection with nature, they clearly get so much out of learning about our wild Irish animals in the hour that follows. There is nothing like the look in their eyes when it is their turn to hold the antlers of a deer or when they look at frogspawn in a tank.

It was this realisation over the past few years that motivated me to want to create a children’s picture book about Irish wildlife. In 2005, I published a hardback book called Ireland’s Mammals for an older audience, but I noticed there was nothing available for young children. During bedtime reading with my own children (I have two boys, a five-year-old and an eight-year-old), I noticed they regularly chose to read animal picture books, but all we had on our bookshelf were books about bears, big cats, and, of course, dinosaurs. So this is what made me want to create an Irish version, which might get them excited about nature and encourage them to want to learn more about the creatures with which we share this island.

There are great advantages in encouraging an interest in the outdoors. For one, it is proven that a connection with nature is good for your health and wellbeing. But teachers in particular often remark that they don’t know where to start. They don’t have the proper texts and they don’t have the resources.

I think it’s about getting kids outdoors and showing them nature, letting them touch it, feel it, hear it, using all their senses, and explaining to them how mysterious it can be – the echolocation skills that allow a bat to find a tiny moth in complete darkness; the speed and skill of a peregrine falcon, the fastest animal on earth.

There is always a danger you will sound like an old-fashioned technophobe, perhaps recalling the past with too much nostalgia. “Oh, in my day, we played out in the fields all day with some nettles and an old stick and we were happy”; or that you are anti-technology, “turn off that X-box, and get out there and climb a tree”. But in fact most wildlife enthusiasts love technology. We use GPS, trail cameras, go-pros, nest-cams and bird call apps all the time. Never before has so much information about wildlife been available thanks to the internet. But it would be wonderful if this could be supplemented with a real physical connection with nature and the outdoors. And I may be biased, but I believe for young children, there’s nothing like a nature book a child can own and hold in their hands.

Through my work, I have asked many National Parks rangers, marine biologists, underwater photographers and other wildlife enthusiasts how they first became interested in nature and most can tell you the very first wildlife book they received as a child. Mine was called Wild Babies and I can still recall the photographs of seal pups, owl chicks, and lion cubs between its covers. A children’s book can sow the seed for a lifelong interest in nature.

The book is printed on FSC paper, from sustainable sources, and was printed by Turners Printing in Longford, so it is a uniquely Irish product. My First Book of Irish Animals is illustrated by the hugely talented Aoife Quinn, from Co Wicklow. Aoife created her illustrations using watercolours and the level of detail she managed to capture is amazing. The book is filled with large drawings and exciting facts but in a very accessible language so that children themselves can read about everything from our smallest mammal to the blue whale, the largest animal that ever lived.

We are constantly told that we have to care about the environment – we must conserve water! We must recycle. Global warming is our fault. I think it is much easier to explain to a young child the virtues of recycling, pollution prevention, or other environmental concerns, if they first understand that, for example, by protecting our seas, we also protect dolphins and whales. As with learning a language, it is best to teach the “language of nature” to our children at a young age. I believe by explaining the diversity and adaptations of our wildlife, it introduces the young reader to the variety and beauty of life.

And putting aside all of the virtuous reasons to expose your children to nature, it’s also fun. Anyone who has watched their child splash in a muddy puddle or collect autumnal leaves for their school nature table can vouch for that! And reading to them about animals can make a nice break from 50 renditions of The Gruffalo!

My First Book of Irish Animals is available in bookshops and direct from the author. Tel. 086-3378611 Email: ISBN 978-0955059414 (paperback, 64 pp, €13.99)

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