Drop that screen, get outside and smell the flowers.
That, in a nutshell, is the gist of a new movement in the UK to wrest children and teenagers away from their screens and explore the great outdoors as part of their school education.
A number of educators and celebrities in the UK are lobbying for a GCSE in natural history that would focus on the outdoors — identifying trees and plants, examining eco-systems and studying ecology and conservation outside, not in the classroom, where natural history has traditionally been viewed as little more than a subset of biology.
The movement is a response to the growing worry that today’s children are already living in a world where nature has thinned out by 50% in just the past 40 years — this, according to the UK State of Nature Report for 2016(https://www.bto.org/research-data-services/publications/state-nature/2016/state-nature-report-2016/summary).
The proposal hopes to put nature back into the heart of the education system — no longer an eccentric hobby for those with the means to travel to exotic destinations but part of the mainstream curriculum, and mainstream thinking.
The idea is to make future generations more attuned to the world around them, and more inclined to help save what little is left.
Traditional science classes are not up to the job of inspiring young minds, the proposal’s backers believe. Biology, as it’s taught in the schools, no longer has any real connection to nature the way most people experience it, young or old. Biology, as it’s taught in the schools, has more in common with chemistry than it does natural history. Zoology and botany are studied at the end of an electron microscope. There is no time for observing nature, let alone figuring out ways to save it.
Watching Planet Earth on TV can only go so far, and can reach only so many young people. A GCSE in natural history would make the outdoors part of the school curriculum, and could potentially reach everyone.
(For the uninitiated, a General Certificate of Secondary Education, or GCSE, is an academically structured, internationally recognized qualification, primarily used in the UK but also in some other Commonwealth countries, awarded in a specific subject. GCSEs are taken over a two- or three-year period. They replaced O-level and CSE exams in 1988 in England and Wales as the official certificate of graduation from secondary school.)
The cloistered, indoor life was never suited for human beings, some experts say, let alone being tethered night-and-day to a screen.
In his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, author and one-time San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Richard Louv argued that electronic screens, computer games and social media, when coupled with our growing alienation from the natural world, can lead to increased attention difficulties and growing rates of physical and emotional illnesses, while at the same time dulling our natural senses.
Getting kids outdoors as part of a fully rounded school education seems like a no-brainer.
Seeing, though, is not always believing.
The reality is that it’s an idea that may not see the light of day, despite some of the heavy hitters in education lining up behind it, owing to the usual suspects: Relentless cost-cutting in schools not funded by private foundations or tax-supported billionaires, overcrowded classrooms, a lack of qualified teachers and the ever-shrinking green space available to residents of the inner city.
When you throw in such factors as “stranger danger” — the not-unwarranted fear that it’s a bad idea to have kids running around in the great outdoors without close supervision — it’s hard to see a GCSE for natural history taking root in the real world.
Still, our growing distance from nature is an important — some might say critical — issue, and it needs to be talked about, outside, in the open and preferably outdoors.