It seems that every time I talk with someone nowadays about children or teaching, I notice the same reoccurring theme: they have trouble engaging them. There are many reasons that people spout as the cause of this problem; from hyperactivity to children having too much screen time or too much time spent indoors. Other reasons also seem to include not enough time spent doing physical exercise and kids eating too many sugary foods and drinks. A reason that I generally add to this list is the lack of connection with people and outdoor spaces.
Unfortunately, the way our society is progressing it would seem that this disengagement is only likely to become worse for any number of reasons (not just those above). Trying to engage students with the outdoors can often be very challenging, yet so very rewarding when you see their interest and understanding in the everyday world increase.
In the education programs that I’ve run over the years, one of the first things I will usually ask students is to think about an outdoor experience or place that they cherish. I usually suggest ideas such as the park down the road, the climbing tree in the backyard or that favourite beach spot where the family goes every summer. The majority of students have no problem with this and the stories I have heard over the years have been amazing. One boy’s favourite place was a big tree in the local park where he spent long days climbing over the school holidays. One of the girls’ favourite spots was by a river where her dad went fishing. All in all, most of the responses affirmed the importance of the outdoors to these students, if only through a small memory.
I have, however, had the occasion where a student has said to me, ‘I have no favourite outdoor place, as I don’t like going outside.’ The first time I heard this I was completely staggered. I myself yearn to be outdoors as much as I can. Throughout any normal day, I spend many moments staring wistfully outside, knowing that’s where I’d rather be. To have someone say that they only want to be indoors and that the outdoors holds no value for them made me extremely sad. It also motivated me to create an enjoyable outdoor experience to try and help them reconnect with nature.
My own experiences growing up had me exploring so many different environments and constantly learning more about the world around me. One of these instances was an excursion to Healesville Sanctuary. This particular outing stands out in my memory because before that moment, I had never openly or scientifically thought about the very obvious differences in habitats within a short geographical range. I had also never thought about the differences in the quantity of species within a location. The field study was quite simple – we took quadrants at three different locations on a hillside within a distance of around 30 metres. This hillside fortunately had a wet ‘rainforest’ area at the base with a creek that then went steeply up to the top of the hill, which was an open, dry forest. The third area was a spot between these two extremes.
This excursion was one of the first times that I had really thought deeply about how nature ‘worked’ and it gave me one of those cherished light bulb moments that every teacher aspires to give their students. Happily for me, this all happened when I was standing on a hillside, counting the number of grass species within one square metre. It cemented my appreciation for the natural world and my wish to continue learning and thinking more about it.
I’m hoping that through the new Wild Melbourne Schools Program I can help students to create similarly positive connections with nature and inspire them to start their own journeys to better understanding the world around them. Our activities have been developed with this in mind and to support students in exploring new ideas about their surroundings and the world as they know it.
I saw instances of this happening whilst running one of our modules, Power Pollinators, down at Point Leo over the summer holidays. This module focuses on the lives of five different pollinators and the many pressures they face within their natural environment. After the session, we went for an impromptu walk to look at the plants around the area. Even after the extended exercise of the session, the children wanted to know more about the plants around them, happily smelled the beautiful perfume of the eucalypts, were impressed with the cones on the coastal banksia and wanted to know what the strange fruits were on the kangaroo apple (and if they were edible!).
The success, though, for this session came when we were wandering back to the Visitor Centre and saw a butterfly hovering over the large tussock grasses currently in flower. One of the girls brightly called, ‘Look at the butterfly! It’s going to pollinate!’ A small win you might say, but for her the connection was made. I’m looking forward to engaging more students with the natural world through our many diverse programs and hope that the successes will continue.
Sarah is a botanist who works at a local indigenous plant nursery in Melbourne. She is interested in engaging the public with the conservation of local flora and fauna.
You can find her on Twitter at @SarahBBond
Banner image courtesy of Sarah Bond.