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.

This is a philosophy shared by the Heritage Council’s very popular Heritage in Schools programme. It has a database of almost 200 experts all over the State and will subsidise their visits to local schools, either to conduct sessions in the classroom or lead trips outdoors.

“It is a scheme that really tries to highlight the value of what is around them,” says Isabell Smyth of the Heritage Council. “It is not about going to iconic sites – Newgrange or the Rock of Cashel – it is learning about what’s local.”

Creating that sense of connection to place is core to all the work of the Heritage Council, and that connection is very valuable, she suggests, to Irish people as they travel to live and work across the world.

There are many barriers to taking children outdoors, including concerns about the risks, the demands of the curriculum and worries about managing a large group outside. These have prevented the access to the outdoors that she believes most people want for their children.

“It is about trying to change the perspective of the value of being outdoors and learning outdoors.”

Younger teachers may not have grown up with much outdoor play themselves, she points out, and can lack the interest or confidence in bringing their young charges outside.

“In our own heads, we think Johnny is brilliant if he can work a computer. We have no value on Johnny being able to climb a tree.”

The budget for the Heritage in Schools programme is exhausted for the remainder of this year but if any spare funding emerges in December, Smyth hopes it will be put into the scheme, to enable more school visits to be booked. Last year it facilitated 1,595 school visits, reaching 118,620 children nationally.

Although the scheme’s definition of “heritage” is wide-ranging, including folklore and customs, the demand is primarily for wildlife specialists to do outdoor work with children, Smyth adds.

Teachers are uncomfortable taking children outside, agrees Sobel. “They don’t know how to create good outdoor learning environments and good outdoor learning expectations.” They have to get it across to children they are not going out for a break but for learning.

Adapting the national curriculum to the local community does take effort, he acknowledges. “It is harder work to figure out how to teach subtraction using the trees on the playground. It takes effort but it is doable.”

There is also a mindset among parents, particularly of secondary school children, that trips outside the classroom detract from the “real” business of school, which needs to be challenged.

“There is a lot of research that suggests that when you do this engagement in real challenges or issues in the community, the need for the learning is much more obvious to the students,” says Sobel.

“So they become more motivated and if you increase motivation, then you increase academic achievement.”

It is not a question, he adds, of doing outdoors stuff “just so they can let off a little steam”.



The Burren, stretching over 700 sq km of Co Clare and Co Galway, is a great learning resource, not only for children in Irish schools but for those in schools in other parts of Europe, says David Sobel.

There is a lot packed into a small area, he points out. “It is easily accessible and remarkably diverse in terms of its flora, fauna and archaeological history.”

The only thing it lacks is a roof, jokes Brendan Dunford of Burrenbeo Trust. Set up 10 years ago, and relying on a huge amount of voluntary effort, the trust is dedicated to protecting “Ireland’s premier learning landscape”.

Its detailed Eco Beo programme works with about six to eight of the area’s 40 primary schools each year, educating children to become custodians of their local landscape. The trust also helps to organise day trips to the Burren for schools further afield.

The idea is that the visiting children have fun and they learn – not through being bombarded with information but by enjoying a connection with the place, he explains.

The trust’s extensive website includes a Curious Kids section, that not only has attractive, illustrated factsheets about what you might find on a trip to the Burren, but also interactive games.

It is well worth a look and is guaranteed to whet the appetite of you and your children for seeing the real thing.

For more information, see burrenbeo.comor tel 091 638096.


As the father of two children, Sobel applied his professional expertise to his parenting and immersed his son and daughter in a wide range of nature experiences, appropriate to their age.

“They are both nature kids,” he says of his offspring who are now in their 20s – Eli is a nature educator and ski coach, while Tara directs children’s theatre.

Sobel’s latest book, Wild Play: Parenting Adventures in the Great Outdoors (2011), is a memoir about how he put his beliefs into practice with his own children. He briefly summaries to The Irish Times how the job of the parent changes through a child’s three main development stages:

Early Childhood:

The emphasis should be on empathy because it is a time when young children are drawn to baby animals in particular. Cultivating relationships with animals, both real and imagined, is one of the best ways to foster empathy during early childhood, according to Sobel.

It is also important to have children outside in their immediate physical environment, allowing them lots of contact with soil, mushrooms and grass – basically with whatever flora and fauna is around.

With his children he was very conscious of encouraging language development that related to the natural world. He tried to use organic rather than mechanical metaphors. For example, he would not compare a bird’s wing to an airplane wing but rather to a particular sort of leaf.

He also did a lot of storytelling that included local flora and fauna, as well as local geology and history. “In the stories there was interdependence between the local natural world and the children who were the main characters,” he explains.

Middle childhood:

The priority here should be what he terms “kinaesthetic diversity” – eg hopping, jumping, climbing trees – enabling children to learn through physical interaction with the natural world.

“Kids don’t use their bodies in the wide diversity of ways they used to,” he points out. “They only use their hands – to operate keyboards.”

It is also a time, between the ages of eight and 12, for increasing independence. They have an innate desire to explore without constant supervision and to build forts and dens, creating imaginary worlds.

“Children should be allowed to be off by themselves in the outside world more and more,” he stresses.


Separation is the challenge for the parent at this stage. He believes it is vital to allow teenagers to enjoy independent adventures in the natural world and have rite of passage experiences such as rock climbing.

It is also the time to get them involved in voluntary activism – such as restoration projects and serving others in the community. Full of idealism, they begin to see the mistakes of their parents’ generation and how things could be done differently.


Helping preschool children make the connection between farms and food and between their jumpers and sheep is the aim of a joint initiative between Dublin Zoo and Early Childhood Ireland, starting next Monday and running until October 26th.

The two interactive programmes, entitled Farm-tastic Food and Winter Woollies have been developed under the Aistear preschool curriculum.

They will encourage children to think about healthy foods and where they come from and to explore natural materials that are harvested from farmyard animals.

The one-hour sessions, tailored for preschool groups, will be conducted in the zoo’s education centre and farm, where children can see, among other things, a cow being milked, eggs collected from hens and potatoes being dug from the ground

“It is really great that they are making the link between animals and food and where real, healthy food comes from,” says Early Childhood Ireland’s chief executive, Irene Gunning. The organisation is currently evaluating research on childhood play and initial findings are showing a “very worrying” disconnect between children and the natural world, she adds.

For more details, see earlychildhoodireland.ieor dublinzoo.ie