Children in nature: an endangered species

The time children spend outdoors is in decline, but the Heritage Council has a scheme to get them out of the classroom

Insects and spiders, birds and bees, trees, swamps and the outdoors. David Attenborough said he has yet to meet a child who didn't love nature, but across the western world, children are spending less time outdoors and more time in front of screens.

This year researchers at University College Cork surveyed more than 120 children from urban and rural schools about being outdoors. The results were clear: all things being equal, children prefer being outside, engaging in unstructured play and exploring their environment. But fear of strangers and cars, and an increasing reliance on creches, mean that their opportunities to be outdoors are limited. A survey for the Heritage Council in 2010 showed the amount of time children spend outdoors in general, and near nature in particular, is in precipitous decline.

The Heritage in Schools scheme, operated by the Heritage Council since 2010, aims to change this. Schools pay a small fee, but the scheme is heavily subsidised by the Heritage Council. It supports the social, environmental and scientific education curriculum, and there’s a huge focus on getting the children out of the classroom wherever possible.

UCD botany graduate Grace Garde is among 175 heritage experts who visited 800 primary schools nationwide as part of the scheme last year. Her interest in the natural world was sparked growing up near Silver Strand in Wicklow and nurtured by her primary-school teacher, Mrs Cassidy.

Today, Garde visits primary schools around counties Wicklow and Dublin to get children exploring the variety and characteristics of plants and animals, and the processes of life.

“A typical week for me involves visiting schools in Wicklow and Dublin, from countryside to urban schools,” she says. “If the schools have grounds, I will use them in our nature studies and investigations. If they are barren, we might find a local hedgerow or park.

“I make it simple for the children. There’s no fancy equipment required. We use a clean yoghurt pot or jam jar for collecting bugs and pond life; and setting traps to study and release; a pond dipping net to catch and release pond life; a sheet to tap insects; and a rope or string to study habitat diversity in the area.”

Garde sets the children up as “detectives” and, over five days of visits, their investigations cover flowers, beetles, butterflies, acorns and, finally, the broader theme of nature.

Role for technology

Perhaps surprisingly, she sees a positive role for technology in the process, and she allows children to bring iPads and use the tools to record their work, including compass, camera, drawing tools, audio tools for recording birdsong and Google Maps to zoom in on the area.

She has a number of favourite areas. “I bring my local school in Newtownmountkennedy to the East Coast Nature Reserve on Newcastle’s Sea Road. Entry is free. We walk along the lovely decked walkways and ground, through the fields and wetlands, up to the bird hides. It’s owned and managed by Birdwatch Ireland, and it’s such a beautiful site. Killiney Hill is another great spot: in a short time you can go through parkland, into deciduous woodland and out on to the rocky, granite, gorse-covered boulders overlooking south Dublin.”

Insects and spiders are the best area of study, she says. “They’re in plentiful supply. I teach the children to be very gentle and to return the insects. They give them names, and I get them to hold the earthworms out so they can see their internal organs through the light of the sun. The children start out nervous, but over time they are willing to let the ladybird walk on their hand, or to pet the frog. I did a recent workshop on bees, and the pupils were fascinated by the complexities of the queen bee and her family.”

Garde’s visits range from 40 to 90 minutes and are tailored to the school and adapted to suit the weather. She finds her lessons are particularly helpful for children with disabilities, including ADHD and autism-spectrum disorders. “Recently I worked with a blind child to help open the world of nature to her senses: the smell and feel of the flowers, the sounds of the birds.

“Children need to get outdoors and into the natural world. There’s a quietness and peace there. It is grounding. There’s a lot of discussion around ‘screen time’, but children are only mimicking what is happening around them. It takes effort, discipline and mindfulness, but it can easily be reversed and controlled. I’m trying to stimulate the scientific brain and instil a love of nature that will help them to find peace, wherever they are in life.”

Isabell Smyth, head of education at the Heritage Council, says there is little to no impetus for schools to encourage outdoor education and to use local resources.

“We’re missing out on an opportunity to use local, outdoor resources, which would help support the school curriculum in areas such as history, geography and science – not to mention encouraging physical activity,” she says. “There is clear evidence to show strong mental and physical health benefits to being outdoors in nature, whether in a garden or by a forest, beach or river. There are many schools doing great work in this area, but others are struggling. We can do better than this. We’ve seen kids learn so much through this scheme and we think it has huge potential. It doesn’t have to be the big trip to the Rock of Cashel: there is history and heritage all around us.”


“Help the schools and Tidy Towns with their local heritage projects. Pick your own heritage area within 3km of where you live. There is bound to be a well, old wall, stone or building that is extra-special in your area: Take this on as your project. Ask the local heritage officers in your county. There are wildlife conservation groups operating in most places in Ireland; support them. Most importantly for yourself, enjoy a nice walk with your friends or family in your local place, wherever that might be.

“Nature needs very little to be encouraged, and we can all have a heritage patch to mind and guard, as our own time allows. Planting a tree or growing your own food will create a habitat for wildlife straight away.

“Children are only delighted to go out: just make a plan, pack a lunch and head out as family to the local park, nature reserve or forest. Set a challenge and make it interesting for the parents as well. Have fun together.”


The Heritage in Schools scheme offers a range of visitors to schools. In Waterford, Grace O’Sullivan explores coastal habitats such as rocky shorelines, sandy beaches, shingle embankments, sand dunes and salt-marsh lagoon ecosystems.

In Dublin, Wicklow, Meath and Kildare, Stephen Mandal and his company, Dig It Kids, introduce children to history and archaeology through excavations and local history activities.

Other expertise ranges from bats to whales, from Vikings to the history of bread, from storytelling to traditional dance, and from charcoal-making to military heritage. Experts work closely with teachers, and activities can be classroom-based or involve excursions, or a mix of both., 056-7770777

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