The future of young naturalists

The fantastic Jake, of Jake’s Bones, recently drew attention to an interview in which Chris Packham and Sir David Attenborough lamented the loss of young naturalists. Jake has then challenged this, and looked for support. I think this is admirable. Sadly, I think Chris and Sir David (both of whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting) have a point though. That’s part of why I started this blog.

When I was at school in the 1980s, I started a ‘Naturalists Club’ for my classmates. Nearly half of us joined in. That’s about 15 kids. Now, when I have worked with schools, you are lucky to get 2 or 3 that are interested. Those 2/3 will be brilliant. Like Jake, they’ll be passionate and knowledgable. But they’ll be exceptional, in more than one sense of the word.

Chris is right when he says about the growing disconnect. It’s a huge problem in my opinion, one that will only get worse, and has negative consequences for the natural world. If you lose your connection to nature, how will you care about what happens to it?

I’m sure legislation has an effect, as Chris and Sir David say. But I don’t think it’s the main problem There’s plenty you can collect if you are interested. I think Jake is much nearer the mark in his blogpost.

Part of it is the ease with which we can distract ourselves in the home. Not just games consoles, but if you do happen to be interested in the natural world, you can get so much online, via DVD, via multiple TV channels, that you may feel you don’t need to leave the house. When I was young, the good wildlife documentaries were occasional, and to be treasured. They could only be watched then. If I wanted a fix the rest of the time, I *had* to get outside.

I also think that parents are probably worried about the safety of their kids (I’ve actually got a blogpost scheduled for later this week on the subject). It’s not irrational, and it’s not wrong. But it may be excessive. Statistically, we are basically the safest people ever in the history of the world. By almost every marker you can track, we are better off, safer, more secure. Yet the attitude of the media has changed, things are reported more graphically and sensationally, and this can make us feel afraid to leave the house. That has to be countered. We have to see that you are basically safe out. I’m not saying be stupid, just trust the common sense of your children.

I think Jake will get responses to his call. he’ll find more brilliant, exceptional young naturalists out there. But they will remain exceptions unless our overall attitude changes, and parents and teachers encourage children to go outside. Not in a dismissive way, not “give me some peace, don’t come home till 7”. But actually taking kids out into local parks, woods, nature reserves, and engaging with the natural world.

I do not believe interests change. Humans have been curious about their world as long as they have existed to be curious. We just need to provide an outlet to engage that curiosity. That way, the young naturalists will grow, spread, and thrive.

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9 Responses to The future of young naturalists

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  3. Kate Long says:

    As I read this post I found myself thinking of the interactions I’ve had over the last six months with young people who like wildlife. Putting aside the many teens in my Twitter feed who log their observations on nature, there’s the little girl across the road who recently wrote to David Attenborourgh about the adder she’d seen; the children next door who come round regularly to pond dip; my own two sons, one of whom posts his nature photography on YouTube; the gang of kids who waited at Greenfields country park to ask about the Dexter cattle and for a guided tour round the reserve; my older boy’s friends who often come walking with me along the canal to see what wild animals we can spot; my younger son’s mate who was so pleased with his hedgehog and owl sightings last week. Perhaps my situation’s freakishly unusual, but I’m looking around me and I’m not seeing any ‘disconnection’ here.

    When my sons were in Cubs, they regularly had fieldcraft trips outdoors, and I’m sure the same activities go on for Guides, Brownies, and Scouts (of whom there are tens of thousands across the county). I once joined in one of their nature walks and watched them learn all sorts of plant IDs. My local farm, Fordhall at Market Drayton, is one of many holding training days for kids: http://www.fordhallfarm.com/education_fordhall.php The Wildlife Trust puts on a wide range of events over the summer holidays for families who want to enjoy the environment, and when I’ve been involved in such a day, we always get a good turnout. Whenever we hold water-vole surveying sessions, we almost always get some young people turning up. Now we have the new RSPB scheme looking at how children are connected with nature: http://www.rspb.org.uk/getoutdoors/

    As for how things were in the past, I’m not convinced children forty years ago were any more deeply connected to nature. When I was at school, I was thought of as off-the-scale weird for being interested in insects and skulls. I can still remember the mocking laughter of the girls in my class when I tried to explain how many different patterns of ladybirds I’d found in a hedge. And though we did spend more time outdoors, the brushes with nature I can remember other kids having weren’t that great – stamping on fungus, nicking birds eggs, catching newts and leaving them to drown, letting tadpoles rot in too-small tanks.

    From chatting to teenagers, it does seem to be true that many kids that age don’t regard nature as very cool, and that due to peer pressure some might play down their interest. Or they may drift away from nature altogether while they take on board the pressures of exams, romance, socialising, college or job applications etc. That’s in fact pretty much what happened to me. But as I got older, I came back to the interest which had been kindled in me as a girl, and I think that’s a not uncommon pattern.

    One thing’s for sure: if you go round labelling a generation as something negative, you may well find they live down to it. I’d rather carry on telling children about how great wildlife is and how much fun they can get out of it, because I know from my own experience that a spark lit in your early years can burn a long, long time.

    Oh, and the little girl across the road from me? I’m thrilled to tell you that David Attenborough wrote back, and she was beside herself with excitement that he’d taken the time to respond. She’ll be out hunting adders next summer, for definite.

    • David says:

      Hi Kate, Thanks for the reply, much appreciated.

      I’m certainly not labelling the generation in a negative way, if that’s how it comes across then I need to post a follow-up! My argument is more that it’s an attitude from adults, that then knocks onto the kids, that causes the disconnect. The whole point of this blog is to say “nature is brilliant, you should get out there and experience it”.

      I do wonder if location plays a part. Around Greater Manchester, I saw this disconnect there. Same in Leeds and York. I’m not saying there’s no interest, just that the examples are the exceptions to the rule.

      I’m not convinced it’s that kids aren’t interested. In fact, taken in context of an earlier post, that’s exactly the opposite of my argument. I worry that bugeoning interest is not fostered, the parents don’t encourage the kids (for fear around safety, for lack of interest themselves), so the green shoots die out.

      It’s hard to say, there’s not a great evidence base to say whether or not interest/engagement is in decline. So we can go on personal, subjective, perception. In which case, my feeling is that there is a negative change, not in interest (6m watching Spring/Autumnwatch argues for interest), but in engagement and understanding. There are some data sources we can consider. You mention cubs and scouts, but numbers in those organisations are plummeting (dropping by four-fifths over 50 years). The badges being taken are moving away from ‘outdoor’ activities, to ‘indoor’ ones. Which I’d argue is further evidence of a change in attitude.

      I think interest is there, but attitudes have changed. As you’ve pointed out, there are some great programmes trying to redress the balance, and I firmly believe it can change for the better.

      • Kate Long says:

        I think it’s a great topic and you’re absolutely right to raise it, and ask what we can do to increase the interest of families in wildlife and the environment generally. I can’t see us ever going back to a time when parents turf kids out of the house for hours and don’t know where they are – as a mum I wouldn’t be happy with that. What it requires is for parents to get out there with their children and share the fun. In these straitened times, wildlife walks are a great day out as they’re free and can take place almost anywhere.

        I’d be looking to organizations like wildlife charities and television and maybe newspapers to help bring the topic to prominence. A lot of sterling work’s already being done, especially by the WTs and things like the children’s Bird Life magazines produced by the RSPB. It would be good, too, if schools could play a prominent part.

        I agree city dwellers are probably less connected to nature, but then wasn’t it always so?

  4. Kate Long says:

    I also think technology can play a big part here. As I said on Twitter, almost everyone these days carries a camera, which makes it easier to ‘collect’ (sightings rather than tangible objects). Those photos can be uploaded onto social networking for a wider audience to admire; young people who don’t necessarily live near each other can find like-minded peers via nature forums like Wild About Britain and the nature groups on YouTube and Flikr and Vimeo. Recording’s never been easier or more democratic. These are exciting times for naturalists!

  5. David says:

    The city-dweller thing is interesting. I’m sure there’s an extent to which it’s true, but I’ve encountered lots of documentary evidence in museum for a rise in natural history societies as industrial towns grew up.

    It’s a shame really, as there’s more opportunity than ever really, and so many great, well-managed green spaces in urban environments. So there’s no excuse not to encourage engagement.

    As for digital, I fully agree. Paolo was right on twitter that the physical object is vital, but that ‘digital collection’ can be a great start. I’ve mentioned photography a couple of times on this blog alread, and I try as much as possible to use my own images. Groups on Flickr, like the Spring/Autumnwatch one provide a great platform too.

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I welcome thoughts, comments and questions, so please feel free to share anything at all. Thanks, David

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