Saturday 11 May 2013

Children are key to nature's future

Saving our natural environment starts with educating children in forests
By Brady Barr, Published The Straits Times, 10 May 2013

OUR society is producing children who are out of touch with nature. As a biology school teacher in the US 20 years ago, I was amazed at the number of children who had never touched a frog, smelt a pine cone or experienced the marvel of fireflies on a hot summer night. Today, I still spend a lot of time in the classroom talking about conservation with children and what I do as a scientist for the National Geographic Channel. I can report that the problem of children being out of touch with nature has continued spiralling downwards.

Children spend the majority of their free time indoors and become increasingly disconnected from nature with the advent of the Internet, smartphones, video games and other technologies. With global environmental problems increasing, the decreasing number of children in tune with and passionate about the natural world is a scary proposition. Where is the next generation of environmentalists going to come from? Who will be the future stewards of the planet?

In Richard Louv's 2005 book, Last Child In The Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder, he writes about the scope of the situation: "After thousands of years of children playing and working primarily outdoors, the last few generations have seen such interactions with nature all but vanish… the implications for the future of environmentalism are immense."

Green zones everywhere

IT CERTAINLY isn't about lost access to city parks, neighbourhood playgrounds or local green zones. The total area covered by urban parkland in the United States exceeds one million acres, with virtually every major city boasting numerous urban green zones.

Singapore is often dubbed a Garden City, thanks not only to its Botanic Gardens, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and MacRitchie Reservoir but also the endless pockets of trees and vegetation that seemingly border every road and avenue. Singapore is a great example of an urban setting filled with "Backyard Nature".

Singaporean children do not have a problem finding green zones close to home so why aren't they using them ?

A Kaiser Family Foundation study found children aged between eight and 10 spend more than six hours a day playing video games, watching television and surfing the Internet. Another study by the Playing For Keeps Organisation said over 60 per cent of children between two and five do not play outdoors daily.

Clearly our children are becoming more "urbanised" in today's world, though likely not a result of diminished access to natural areas. So why have today's children lost touch with nature?

In my experience, today's schools and classroom environments have more rules and rigidly structured learning schedules. There is far too much "teaching to the test" and not enough inquiry- based exploration. Letting children touch, feel and experience things, to spark their interests and natural wonder, has all but disappeared. When I was a child, it was hard to find a classroom that did not have live plants, an aquarium or small animals, all periodically involved in the learning process. Yet today I rarely come across these things inside schools, the very things that can change a child's life.

On a recent visit to a public primary school in Singapore, I was astonished to find cutting-edge computers, smart-screen boards, interactive video technology and even an elaborate production studio... it made me want to enrol! But these tools simply cannot and should not replace the impact of hands-on learning, such as observing and interacting with a living organism.

Hands-on forests

WHEN compared to computer and written-based instruction, children learn concepts faster and retain that knowledge longer when hands-on learning is used - the two should go hand in hand. Maybe administrators and teachers are simply afraid of legal problems that might arise if there were ever an "incident" with a classroom animal/plant, a field trip or a venture outside the school walls to a green zone.

Recently, with a group of Singaporean children in a forest, I was astonished to find that not a single student in the class had set foot in a real forest. My intended discussion quickly changed course and became more of a "discover nature" pep talk. I went on to tell them that nature was all around them, even though they lived in urban Singapore.

That nature could be found outside in the school yard, in a city park and even in the overgrown vacant lot near their school - they did not need a lot of resources, the need to travel far or have special expertise to experience nature. They were astonished they could find everything from bats to 200-year-old trees in the city park just a few blocks away.

The children simply never had any guidance, direction or experience when it came to nature, albeit one of an urban variety. These children don't need wild tigers roaming the rainforest to get excited about nature. That is the beauty of being a child. They can get just as excited about discovering insects under rocks at the park or snails in the grass around their soccer field. The city park, the vacant lot or green zones all over the city offer these children, like countless others across South- east Asia, the best chance to experience nature first hand. Getting these children back in touch with nature is a good thing for all of us.

Educating natural future

PARENTS, teachers, scientists, organisations and the media need to become pro-active in reconnecting our children with nature. We must reintroduce our children to nearby nature in any way we can.

I am very encouraged by Singapore's education system making a concerted effort to get children out of the classroom and embark on inquiry-based exploration. The Young Scientist Cards Scheme and after-school Science Clubs are steps in the right direction. Singapore's Science Centre is a world-class facility dedicated to stimulating young minds by involving them with nature as well. Big organisations such as StarHub and National Geographic Channel have recently joined forces and made a commitment to help Singaporean children reconnect with nature through their National Geographic Channel Young Explorers Programme and the Mobile Garden, a live garden planted inside a bus. The Mobile Garden is essentially a rainforest on wheels. If you cannot get the children to nature, this mobile garden brings nature to them.

Lastly, parents need to limit their children's use of electronic devices and make time for outdoor play, investigation and exploration. We as adults, as conservationists, as parents, as concerned humans, all need to help children reconnect with nature. The planet will be a much better place for all of us.

The writer is a herpetologist and programme ambassador of National Geographic Channel Young Explorer Programme.

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