China’s economic boom means its city-bound children have little experience of nature. But efforts are afoot to change that. From the Guardian blogs | http://www.facebook.com/NAEEUK
We all met by the roadside before setting off for the nature camp. It was a clear, early-spring morning and several of the children played on a dusty patch of ground next to a run-down factory. We grabbed one of the girls as she ran past. “Do you like it here?” we asked.
“Yes,” she shot back.
And off she ran. We watched curiously as the girls piled earth, stones, sticks and leaves together.
“What are you doing?”
“Making a cake!”
The child who answered didn’t even look up, being too busy adding leaves to the “cake”. We laughed, but also felt a little sad. It was good to see the children at ease and happy and feeling close to nature. But it was also obvious that it had been a long time since they’d seen any real nature and that they rarely got to play outside; otherwise, they wouldn’t have been so excited about this scrap of land.
And – sure enough – when we got to our destination and saw the orchards, grass, ponds and hills, they whizzed off like escaped rabbits.
I still feel the same mix of happiness and sadness every time children get out of the car and run off shouting, ignoring any calls to return.
China‘s rapid economic development has changed much of the country’s appearance. Childhoods of climbing trees, picking dates and grapes, catching fish, shrimp and tadpoles (or cicadas and crickets), making whistles from willow twigs, and spending all day outside until you were deeply tanned are gone. What have today’s children, growing up with TVs and computers, lost?
City kids in China became cave-dwellers in an urban jungle long ago. Children lose the ability to experience nature. They can talk at length about whales or cheetahs, but not describe a flower at their feet. Parents know that if their youngsters eat too much processed food, they will not have a balanced diet; yet they are less likely to know that too much processed information will also hamper children’s development.
In Richard Louv‘s Last Child in the Woods, the phrase “nature deficit disorder” is used to describe the broken connection between children and nature. And in a rapidly modernising and urbanising China, this phenomenon is spreading quickly.
Friends of Nature, formed in 1993, is one of China’s oldest NGOs and has provided links between the urban public and nature through bird-watching and gardening groups. Nature education aimed at children started in 2000, with Green Hope Action and the Antelope Bus.
Green Hope Action sees volunteers from the city visit poor villages to provide environmental education. The Antelope Bus is a mobile nature-education project that Friends of Nature adopted from Germany; in its early years, it also visited rural schools. Similar projects include the Beijing Brooks Education Centre’s programme to educate children who live near nature reserves about wetlands. These projects all started in cities and are aimed at rural areas. China’s early NGOs aimed to help vulnerable groups, rather than urban populations that tended to have access to more resources.
Over time, however, some of those involved started to question this long-distance approach and to look towards city residents. They found that children in cities had fewer chances to get close to nature than did their rural counterparts – that urban children suffered more of a nature deficit – and so they began to experiment with environmental education in cities. City children (and even some parents), it emerged, didn’t need more knowledge – they just needed to rebuild their links with the natural world.
Even an ant can cause both children and adults to panic, says Wu Yue, children’s nature tutor at the Lovingnature Education and Consulting Centre. The ants, worms and lizards we often caught and played with as kids have become terrifying beasts. Similarly, an experiment once found that Japanese university students preferred to play in a concrete gully, believing that two tree-lined mountain rivers nearby were dangerous. Long-term separation from the natural environment causes estrangement, fear and the loss of the ability to appreciate nature’s beauty.
As the NGOs worked, they came to understand that while it’s good for a child to be able to name a plant, more is gained if he or she can appreciate its beauty; understand its structure and evolution, its links with other animals and plants; and experience the connection between people and nature.
Within two or three years, these ideas gave birth to a range of educational activities based around the observation and experience of nature. These activities include Friends of Nature’s Nature Camps, run by members and volunteers; Beijing Brooks’s nature and art experiences at Waterdrops Camp at its Nature Study Centre in the hills outside of Beijing; Hanhaisha’s community gardens project; and Nature Heart’s classes combining observation, explanation and photography of nature.
And we were delighted to see how the children behaved during the activities, breaking down the barriers between themselves and nature; it was like a miraculous journey.
Song Xi works on Friends of Nature’s nature experience project. She asked a group of lively children to close their eyes and lie beneath the branches of a large tree. When they opened their eyes and saw the sun shining through the green canopy, they fell silent –as if the whole world had stopped.
At first, city kids are unruly and uninterested, but they become curious, excited and focused over time. Initially they don’t want to get dirty and they scream at the sight of a bug – but soon they get closer to nature than their parents do. If they have the opportunity to observe and experience nature, they discover new things, things we may never have noticed, and they become imaginative about things that look ordinary.
Nature is ever-changing and full of beauty, and everyone is drawn to appreciate and understand it. It sharpens our senses, stimulates the spirit and cleanses the soul. No matter what their background, all children can find restoration in nature. As Hu Huizhe of Friends of Nature says, even “adults caught up in themselves can feel the power of nature when they notice a dramatic mountain scene or the colours of a wild flower”.
Playing outside makes children more fit and coordinated, and helps them to build friendships. The “secret gardens” of our childhood can absorb our sadness, soothe our soul and nurture our lives – and build our future personalities. Activities in the natural environment are not optional; they are an essential ingredient of a healthy childhood, just like sunshine and air are essential for trees and plants.
Nature is a treasure-house of knowledge, a palace of art, a spring of imagination and creativity. Children who know how to appreciate beauty will be happier, and creative children will be more successful. In his “Song of the Open Road“, the 19th-century American poet Walt Whitman said: “Now I see the secret of making the best persons; it is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.” Letting children build an emotional connection to nature, to ignite their curiosity and passion – that is the root of all learning.
As Li Weiwen, chair of Taiwan’s Society of Wilderness wrote in his book Education Can Be Romantic: “Take your child for a walk, and if you have a calm and unflustered heart, nature will lead you to appreciate it and learn everything that we should know.”
Liu Xinyan is deputy director of the Beijing Brooks Institute.
- Urban children reconnecting with nature (guardian.co.uk)
- Spend more time outdoors with kids in 2012 (environmentaleducationuk.wordpress.com)
- A Few Words About the Children and Nature Network (environmentaleducationuk.wordpress.com)
- Nature Deficit Disorder | Education.com (education.com)
- The New Era of Self-Sufficiency (thomasjelpel.wordpress.com)
- How Does China Enforce Its One-Baby Policy? (mentalfloss.com)
- Banned in China (nybooks.com)
- Volunteer, Right to Education in Africa (socialactions.net)
- China is foolish to alienate the army of labour that drives its ascent | Hsiao-Hung Pai (guardian.co.uk)
- Saffron Tree’s Feature on Pratham Books (prathambooks.org)
- Children Play Naturally™ with New Nature-Inspired Playground Equipment (prweb.com)
- Thirty ideas from people under 30: The Environmentalists – Christian Science Monitor (csmonitor.com)
- Off the couch and out the door: getting your kids into nature (theconversation.edu.au)
- Many children go unregistered in West Africa: NGO (vanguardngr.com)
- No child left inside (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
From Scientific America…
Ten families hiked into Davidson College Ecological Preserve on a bright Saturday morning to get a glimpse of the kudzu-eating goats, usually off-limits to the public. The outing was part of an environmental education program, World of Wonder (WOW!), a partnership of the Davidson Lands Conservancy (DLC) and Woodland Discovery, a non-profit nature program in Cornelius, NC.
The goats were no doubt the initial attraction for families that signed up for the free program, but children were greeted by WOW! Volunteers with recipes for Kudzu salsa, candy, and jellies, along with bags to collect their fill of Kudzu leaves along the way. Immediately darting from vine to vine, choosing only the smallest, most flavorful leaves, one six-year-old girl exclaimed, “this is like free salsa!”
Happily, the kids were receiving a hands-on lesson in invasive plant identification, as the guide pointed out other invasive species like English ivy, wisteria, and Japanese privet, whose seeds are spread primarily by birds. “The reason that these open spaces have a lot of invasives,” explained Irvin Brawley, who worked as Director of Grounds for Davidson College for 40 years before retiring, “is because it’s a great flyway for birds.”
Once they reached the goats rented by Davidson College to graze on five acres of out of control kudzu, the kids saw the sheer growing power of the vine (one foot per day) verses the eating power of the goats (15-20 lbs of kudzu per day). “This is just the start of Davidson College trying to control kudzu sustainably,” said Brawley.
Like the goats, the kids quickly found new uses for kudzu. Several boys began to swing like young Tarzans from a lush, robust vine. Others pulled down dried kudzu vines to weave into small wreaths with the help of their parents. One boy was determined to fill his bag for that night’s dinner, while exclaiming “it smells like asparagus!”
The effect of the outing was different from most educational tours I’ve experienced – the children were encouraged to not only see and listen, but to touch, smell, and eventually taste nature in all its wonder. In just one hour, I watched children interact with peers and family in the outdoors without fear of the unknown, and they learned naturally and in the best way possible – without even realizing it.
Part of the success of the program is groups are kept small, 15-20 people, to allow for a more intimate learning experience and connection with nature. The idea is working, as there is usually a wait-list for families eager to participate in the program.
“Everybody gains,” explains Pam Dykstra, DLC President. “Parents are empowered because they’re learning with their children, and it becomes a bonding experience because they’re sharing the natural world with their children.”
A Childhood Reality: Nature Deficit Disorder
The concept that people, specifically today’s children, are increasingly suffering from “nature-deficit disorder” stems from Richard Louv, the author of “Last Child in the Woods.” Louv explains that the term was not meant to be a formal diagnosis in his 2009 blog post in Psychology Today. “Nature-deficit disorder is not a formal diagnosis, but a way to describe the psychological, physical and cognitive costs of human alienation from nature, particularly for children in their vulnerable developing years,” he writes.
The problem stems from the increasingly indoor, controlled and/or sanitized lifestyles that modern families lead. The environments where children live, learn, and play all have an effect on mood, growth, and overall health and well-being. With the rising rates of childhood obesity and attention deficit disorder, two problems linked to sedentary lifestyle and increased use of electronics, now is the time for parents to get their kids out of the house.
Moreover, a recent study shows the stakes are even higher. Researchers at Sydney University reported that excessive TV watching causes retinal damage in children and leads to increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes in adulthood. The study also found such effects could be reversed through increased physical activity – like playing outside.
A Natural Partnership
Understanding that not all people are nature buffs able to travel for miles to nature preserves or state parks, DLC identified the need to not only preserve natural areas and make them accessible to people, but to educate families about the value of natural areas in their hometowns and backyards. The partnership with Woodland Discovery was a natural one, as they were already providing outdoor summer camps and nature programs to preschoolers and homeschoolers.
Carolyn Walker, Director of Woodland Discovery, organizes the WOW! educational booth at the Davidson Farmer’s Market, which stays busy with families participating in the latest environmental craft, activity, or concept – from solar ovens to flower printing. Last Saturday there was a line of children waiting to see a cloud of tadpoles and take some home, but only if they promised to release the frogs back into their original habitat.
Overall, Walker has seen an increase in families bringing their children to the market this year. “We have a hardcore following of families that come every weekend, and then others are pleasantly surprised there is something for kids to be interested in,” she said.
The idea that nature has an amazing potential to inspire and motivate people, specifically children, is not a new one. What stayed with me as the WOW! outing ended is the belief that similar outdoor experiences can and must be shared with children, so that future generations will care enough to save the little wild places that fondly remind us of our own childhoods.
Photos by: Patti McKinnon.
About the Author: Lilly Vicens is a freelance writer, nature enthusiast, and volunteer with the Davidson Lands Conservancy and Lake Norman Wildlife Conservationists. Her science writing has been published by Coastwatch Magazine, StormwaterMagazine, and the Watershed Education Network. Vicens holds a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Natural Resources, Ecosystems Assessment from North Carolina State University.
The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those ofScientific American.
The vote by the Maryland board of education requires that students get a “comprehensive, multi-disciplinary environmental education” before receiving a diploma. Districts will have to develop plans for coursework that meets state standards in environmental literacy and have their plans approved by the state superintendent of schools. They will also have to develop ways to assess students’ mastery of the material in order to determine if they are eligible for graduation.
The action today follows a decision by the board last summer to require that students get a bigger dose of environmental literacy than they had been getting in typical science classes. There was some confusion, however, about whether that action actually made environmental literacy a graduation requirement. Today’s vote was intended to clear up that confusion and make the requirement official.
- Our Schools Can’t Teach The Basics But Now They Are Adding Environmentalist Whacko Propaganda To The Curriculum (rantsandrage.com)
- Rockefellers’ ICLEI Agenda 21 – Environmentalism Required for Graduation (fellowshipofminds.wordpress.com)
- Daily Benefactor News – Maryland Is First State To Require Students To Pass Green Junk Science Test Before Graduating (thedaleygator.wordpress.com)
- Your Guide to Environmental Education (distance-education.org)
- Common Core and the Common Good: The Need to Improve Secondary Literacy Skills (edadvocates.wordpress.com)
- Applied #Literacy as integrated and integrous (jasonrenshaw.typepad.com)
n the beginning there was the word, and the word was with Attenborough, and the word was Attenborough. As an evolutionary scientist, Sir David Attenborough may laugh at the biblical allusion, but he has certainly had an instrumental role in creating our modern perception of the world. For not only did Life on Earth, his landmark 13-part 1979 natural history series, change our relationship with television, it also transformed our understanding of nature and the planet at large.
Tim Scoones, who is executive producer of populist wildlife showSpringwatch, is in no doubt of the legacy of Life on Earth and its countless imitators. “It has been significant in reconnecting an increasingly disconnected human population with the environment of the planet that we not only come from but also rely on,” he says.
There had been other grand-scale documentary series before, such as Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation and Jacob Bronowski‘s The Ascent of Man, both of which Attenborough commissioned when he was the controller of BBC2 from 1965-69. But his own spectacular treatise on evolution enjoyed a different level of universal appeal.
With its extraordinary wildlife images and its compelling story of life from algae to humanity, Life on Earth spoke to all ages and cultures, gaining an estimated global audience of 500 million. The moment in which Attenborough encountered a female mountain gorilla in Rwanda remains one of the most celebrated scenes in the history of television. “There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than with any other animal I know,” he ad-libbed, and we found ourselves confronting the reality of our close ancestry, not in uplands of Rwanda, but on the sofas of our homes.
The series was the benchmark against which all other large-scale documentary television would thereafter be judged, and it marked the point at which ecological and environmental awareness moved out of obscure meeting rooms and into the world’s sitting rooms. This was a critical development, because without taking up any kind of political stance, Attenborough re-engaged overwhelmingly urban populations with the natural environments in which most of the world’s non-human inhabitants live.
Since then natural history has evolved through a process of natural selection and adaptation into a multiplicity of species in a variety of habitats. There is, for example, the Nat Geo Wild channel. Here is an environment that would probably not have existed had it not been for that burst of life from Life on Earth. Now, in consequence, it sustains celebrity fauna like Great Migrations with Stephen Fry, as well as more unfamiliar designations such as Shark Men, Tiger Man and, of course, My Dog Ate What?
There has also been diverse proliferation on that giant continental shelf, the BBC, where The Truth About Lions and Wild Night In feature among the scores of nature programmes that have been screened in recent years. Springwatch has mutated into Autumnwatch, Autumnwatch Unsprung and even Snow Watch, all of which draw audiences of around 2 to 3 million people.
However, the big beasts remain the epic series such as Human Planet, which gained figures of 5.3 million, and a 20% audience share, and specials like Polar Bears: Spy on the Ice, which 5.5 million watched. These programmes seem to plug into an elemental curiosity that is shared by all age groups and classes.
Attenborough himself was responsible for many of these programmes, including The Living Planet, The Trials of Life and The Life of Mammals. He also provided the narration (for British audiences) on The Blue Planet and, arguably the culmination of the genre, 2007’s Planet Earth.
The first series to be filmed in high definition, Planet Earth is the most expensive nature documentary the BBC has ever made. Not that the BBC was the only funder. Such is the cost of these kinds of undertakings, in which a cameraman may spend hundreds of hours waiting to capture an endangered species in its habitat, that they are pre-sold to partners such as America’s Discovery channel.
Spreading the investment in this manner has enabled the BBC to maintain its position at the leading edge of technology, delivering breathtaking images of cinematic breadth and forensic precision. The question now is: where can the natural sciences go from here on television? Over the past 32 years, every conceivable aspect and area of the planet has been documented in increasingly vivid detail. It’s likely that the quality of filming will continue to improve, but there is a limit to what there is to film. The new frontiers look set to be technological rather than geographical.
Tim Scoones believes producers will continue to attempt to top previous feats and cites the forthcoming Frozen Planet as an example of that ambition. “The Planet Earth team has gone to the ends of the earth,” he says. “This could be a document of a world that may not exist for much longer.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Scoones suggests the future could be based on the model of more locally focused programmes such as Springwatch, which he says Attenborough himself picked out as representing the first major development in natural history broadcasting since Life on Earth. “It’s a deeper dive into knowledge broadcasting than those big nature polemics,” says Scoones.
This may be true, but it’s hard to imagine that such a steady, unfolding view of nature will ever capture the global imagination in the way that the monumental series, with all their exotic magnificence, have achieved. As Scoones agrees, a vital component of their success has been the sense of awe they inspire, which is a vanishingly rare commodity in the secular, postmodern world.
“One of the things we get back from audience research, particularly with the big pieces we do in natural history, is that viewers feel small and unimportant,” says Kim Shilling-law, the BBC commissioner for Science and Natural History. “In lots of ways you’d think that would be a negative response. You wouldn’t put it top of your list of how you’d want to feel today. But clearly it is an emotionally rewarding experience. Something about being placed in a bigger context is very powerful for the audience.”
Someone who instinctively understands this desire for a transcendent experience is Brian Cox, the youthful-looking professor of particle physics who has almost single-handedly revolutionised science on television. If Attenborough proves irreplaceable in nature, then Cox is busy taking up his mantle in science.
Traditionally, as Shillinglaw notes, the science audience has been characterised by its intellectual curiosity and the natural history audience by its expectation of emotional engagement. What was evident in Cox’s recent series Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe was the clear intention to combine the two, simultaneously appealing to the heart and the mind.
Cox identifies Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, first broadcast in 1980, as an early inspiration and influence on his approach to science and ultimately broadcasting. “For me, one of the most powerful elements of the programme was the attempt to convey the underlying emotional attraction in the whole endeavour. You’ve got to remember that science is an emotional pursuit.”
Cutting his teeth in the Horizon strand, which can be a little dry and laboratorial, Cox wanted to find an “audience beyond the 1.5 million middle-aged men. We always had in mind that we would prefer a morePlanet Earth type audience.”
In the event, Wonders of the Universe drew an average audience of 6 million people in Britain, which is an impressive figure for a series which began by explaining the second law of thermodynamics. Much of its critical and commercial success can be attributed to Cox’s uncommon gift of being able to raise his voice without lowering his tone.
“I do think audiences are there to be challenged significantly more than we often assume,” he says. “I think you can lose audiences intellectually, and I don’t think they’ll turn off. That’s my theory. The evidence is that the viewing figures hold up.”
If Cox’s seemingly bottomless enthusiasm helped pull in many viewers, the two series also benefited from the vast, multi-locational scope more usually associated with natural history. One moment the presenter was in Mexico, then the next on the abandoned coastline of Namibia, racking up more air miles than George Clooney in Up in the Air.
Even so, he’s decided to ditch the globetrotting style for his next series. Shillinglaw approves of the change of tack. “What we have to be constantly aware of in television is to be wary of pastiche,” she says. “What Brian is saying there is that we shouldn’t become lazy.”
But Cox also seems to be saying that he feels the peripatetic frenzy served as a distraction. “I think in some sense, in hindsight, we overused the huge panoramic vistas. I think what’s interesting is if you look at what people remember from the two Wonder series, they tend to be the smaller moments. For example, in Solar System, when I have a little bucket and I calculate the energy output of the sun. It happens to be in Death Valley but it’s the intimacy of that scene that people remember.”
At the moment Cox and his partner Andrew Cohen are thinking about how to pare back on visually spectacular set pieces while still satisfying the widescreen and Blu-ray audience. “There’s almost a layer of clichés that have built up,” he says. “Things like Planet Earth started it, because you’ve got big TVs and so you can have beautiful helicopter shots. This kind of BBC trademark high-quality look has become part of the funding structure. Is there any of that glossy and almost bombastic television that we can strip away while keeping the quality?”
While grappling with this question, Cox and Cohen have been studying a series that’s more than three decades old: Life on Earth.
“Obviously one of the things that is brilliant about the programmes is Attenborough,” says Cox, “but they’re also quite intimate, quite long pieces where the environment becomes the stage for the story.”
It’s fitting that Cox, the most charismatic science presenter in a generation, has returned to Attenborough in his search for ideas. In showing us the world, Attenborough connected us with something profound and lasting and fundamentally bigger than ourselves. No one else has forged such a trusted relationship with the viewer. As Scoones puts it: “I think Life on Earth was when people recognised, if you like, the truth of the word.”
And the word, ultimately, is the image. That’s why television will remain the most effective means of bringing the message of nature’s rich and precious complexity home.
Professor Brian Cox, Wonders of the Universe
“Television is a limited format – you’re only working with a few hours – but what you can hope to do is to open people up to some big ideas. Things like Life on Earth revealed a world of natural history that just hadn’t been seen before. Planet Earth did it again.
And what Wonders of the Solar System and Universe did, from the feedback I’ve received, is inform a lot of people who didn’t know that there were 350m galaxies in the observable universe. You can convey the backdrop of current scientific knowledge. You can’t give a lecture. You can map out the terrain.
The natural event I was most proud of bringing to people’s TV screens was the solar eclipse at Varanasi. It was a dramatic thing to be involved in. It was very unlikely we were going to get it – the weather forecast was atrocious across the whole area of the eclipse. It was sheer luck that we chose the right place. And the backdrop and colour of Varanasi were brilliant.
What’s the event I’d most like to see on television? I think that would have to be a manned mission to Mars.”
Professor Brian Cox’s latest book is Wonders of the Universe (Collins, £20)
Beverly Joubert, Nat Geo Wild
“The issues we have in conservation today stem from a lack of understanding, and association with, nature, so television is an important mouthpiece and ambassador. We hear more and more comments from kids quoting stuff from our programmes back to us, and the number of facts they have absorbed is pretty stunning. We must, however, be careful about trivialising wildlife and suggesting that it only has value as entertainment for us humans. A lot of TV is like that, and you can reach a point at which it ceases to be productive and tips over into voyeurism. But television has other benefits too: because it is in your home, you tend to trust it for facts and debate, whereas theatre and film are considered entertainment.”
Beverly Joubert is the joint explorer-in-residence at Nat Geo Wild and the National Geographic Channel
Kate Humble, Springwatch
“The wildlife documentaries that have enormous popularity and are close to people’s hearts – the sort of thing that David Attenborough works on – have allowed viewers to become armchair travellers. Television allows people access to every part of the world and helps them to give value to the planet, to understand that this is something really worth protecting.
Nature documentaries open people’s eyes to the wonders of the natural world, be it something on their doorstep, the way Springwatch has done, or the exotic, like the behaviour of birds of paradise in Papua New Guinea. Some people have referred to documentaries like Blue Planet and Planet Earth as ‘wildlife porn’ – and I’d say hooray to that if it inspires viewers to get out into the natural world. The greater the passion we can inspire for the natural world, the more effective conservation will be.
I am proud of Springwatch: often the stars of the shows are animals and birds that people see in any urban garden or park. What we do through cutting-edge technology, using tiny little cameras, is film every moment through their breeding seasons. It’s certainly given me a different perspective on our most common birds, ones that we often disregard. It may seem small and domestic compared to seeing an astonishing lion kill, but our domestic environment is something to be celebrated.”
Kate Humble appears on Springwatch on BBC Two at 8pm on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays and on Wednesdays at 7.30pm – followed byUnsprung
- Sir David Attenborough’s TV life (guardian.co.uk)
- Daniel Craig is to replace Sir David Attenborough as voice of BBC wildlife films (telegraph.co.uk)
- Human Planet up for seven Baftas (bbc.co.uk)
- Craig to replace Attenborough as nature host (hollywood.com)
- Brian Cox and David Attenborough speak out at Lords hearing on BBC (guardian.co.uk)
- inspiration to live a life well lived (bodyetravels.wordpress.com)
- Attenborough: children don’t know enough about nature (telegraph.co.uk)
- Attenborough: CGI confuses fact and fiction (independent.co.uk)
- Attenborough: Truth About Climate Change (milkandcookies.com)