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First engagement with the environment

Children are in touch with nature, maintains Sue Dale Tunnicliffe

Authors and the media often assert that, at the present time, children are out of touch with nature. Richard Louv, in his seminal book, Last child in the woods1 calls today’s children the ‘wired generation’. He links their perceived shortage of nature to some of the most disturbing childhood trends: rises in obesity, attention disorders, and depression.  On the contrary, my research shows that children do have a wide understanding of animals, which they encounter in various forms in their everyday lives. If educators understood this, they could use it to influence their scientific literacy.

We need to define what we mean by ‘nature’. Is it the popularly-portrayed natural history destinations: oceans, Africa or South America?  Is it the wild places of our own countries, accessible only though special expeditions or trips to zoos and nature centres? Is it the woods, fields, hedgerows, walls, verges and gardens around the built environment where children live? Does being in touch with nature mean seeing the exotic, or do the endemic species of pavement, yard and wall, verges, parks and ponds qualify as nature? 

We feel that the very local environment counts as nature just as much as really wild and exotic locations.

Texonomy of experience

A group of us, unfunded, in six different countries, have begun to explore the knowledge children have of aspects of nature that they meet in their lives.

My colleagues from Finland, Iceland, Brazil, USA, Portugal and England visited   schools, which agreed to participate. We asked school children of six years, eight, and ten and fourteen the same questions about animals about which they knew.

From their answers, we drew up a taxonomy of experience with animals. It is too complicated to describe in full here; however, it shows that children come across animals at first hand. They also interact vicariously with animal representations, such as carvings on buildings or works of art, as well as in the media. These interactions happen at home, on the street, at school, or further afield on beaches, or in zoos or museums.

This taxonomy may or may not influence the child when adult, but it may influence their scientific literacy and their learning in biological science. It may also affect their appreciation and concern for the natural world, which they know.

What they saw

The children noticed both vertebrates and invertebrates. The most often cited category was that of mammals (which were endemics or domestic animals), birds including pet birds, and everyday birds such as pigeons and sparrows in the case of England. A few reptiles and amphibians figured, as well as fish, if a suitable habitat were nearby.  Invertebrates encountered everyday were molluscs, arachnids (all spiders) and insects, bees, butterflies and ants. The annelid worms, represented by the earthworm, were noticed across all countries.

Categories of animals seen or known about were similar: exotics (not native to the country), endemic, domestics, pets, or farm animals. However, the proportion of each species cited varied from country to country, as did the locations where they were seen. English primary children, for example, named far more exotic animals, seen at zoos and on televisions and DVDs, whereas Portuguese children mentioned the television and other media much less but their homes and the immediate environment much more, including seeing crabs at a restaurant and a flea on the pet cat.  One English girl mentioned a variety of fish molluscs that she had seen in the refrigerators at her father’s place of work. A six-year-old Finnish girl observed a hedgehog in the compost heap in their garden.

An understanding of the knowledge of types of animals and their habitats is the beginning of zoological, ecological and environmental knowledge.

1 R Louv (2008), Last child in the woods; saving our children from nature-deficit, Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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Dr Sue Dale Tunnicliffe
Dr Sue Dale Tunnicliffe, is at the Institute of Education, University of London
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