A recent study showed 83% of 5–16-year-olds do not recognise a bumblebee!
Yet another survey, by the Office for National Statistics, discovered that 78% of children and young people agree that the environment is important to them and 81% said they wanted to do more to look after the environment. These sentiments indicate a desire to understand more about the natural world but it is clear that there is a broken link between desire and knowledge.
There is a poster on the wall of my office, right above my computer monitor, that quotes the inimitable Robin Williams:
“No matter what people tell you; knowledge and ideas can change the world.”
Knowledge, indeed, is power. We need our children to be given that knowledge about the natural world to inspire passion to care for it. By learning more about their natural surroundings throughout their formal education, our children can be inspired into creating a habit of caring for it.
Although there has always been attention on the natural world and outdoor learning in the very early years of formal education, the focus quickly drops away and the onus falls upon the shoulders of parents and extracurricular groups such as the Girl Guide and Scout movements to bridge this gap.
It was naturalist and broadcaster Mary Colwell’s passion for the natural world that inspired her in 2017 to petition the government to develop a GCSE in Natural History to help bridge this gap. With the support of Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, and working closely with the OCR, teachers, students, naturalists, conservationists and many others, the Department of Education is on track to launch the new Natural History GCSE in September 2025, subject to final accreditation by OfQual.
It is envisaged that the Natural History GCSE will teach students how to “understand the rich and diverse natural world. Through observational study . . . and investigation, natural history seeks to understand the diversity, complexities, and interconnectedness, of life on earth in contrasting habitats.” Importantly, it will also explore how human activities interconnect with natural systems, broadening students understanding of how human intervention, good and bad, impacts change on a global scale.
We hope that through this study, children will build a greater relationship with the natural world. It is vital if we are to give future generations the ability to think differently about how consumers and businesses continue to live and operate on our delicate planet.
Providing opportunities for children to gain an interest in the natural world will build a valuable base from which further learning can grow and is easier than you think. Long before they reach GCSE age, it's vitally important that we give them the chance to explore and ask questions. After all, curiosity is arguably at its peak during childhood and the teenage years. You may be amazed at the questions they come out with:
- What does a woodlouse do when its afraid?
- Why aren’t we raking the leaves this year?
- What’s the difference between a Blue Tit and a Great Tit?
- Can a bee fly in the rain?
Here are eight ways to introduce your young children to nature:
- Observe and nurture wildlife in your garden or local green space: give them a helping hand by building or buying a bird box, bee hotel, hedgehog house or building a simple log pile. Make homemade fat balls and encourage your children to keep the feeders full. Add a water source and teach the importance of water for wildlife – it’s not just for drinking!
- Grow your own food: don’t be put off by thinking you need a big space. Root vegetables can be grown in buckets, and herbs and salad on windowsills. Even a cress head will help teach them what plants need to survive.
- Woodland treasure hunt: most woodland walks have public footpaths and provide picnic benches and toilets. Pop your baby in a sling or carrier or let toddlers stretch their legs a little. Plan your route so it's not too far to go and set off at a nice leisurely pace. Stop lots and encourage them to use all their senses: what can they see, hear or smell? Feel the difference between the barks of different trees or textures of different leaves.
- Pond dipping/seaside scouting - grab a bucket and a magnifying glass and let your little one explore the teeny tiny creatures swimming about. NOTE: Be careful with toddlers near water. I used a backpack with reins for this type of activity to ensure they were safe. Remember to take your rubbish with you but leave the wildlife in situ.
- Keep a pet: encourage compassion and introduce a sense of responsibility by having them help feed or clean out their pet. Help them understand how dependent animals are on us for their survival and how our actions influence their natural environments.
- Garden craft: children love a bit of messy play. Give them a mud kitchen pan or bowl half full of water and let them add grass, little flowers and petals and stir it all up to make ‘perfume’. Ask them to collect twigs, leaves and flowers and help them to make a nature collage to hang in your kitchen.
- Road trip: visit the Natural History Museum in London, the Centre for Alternative Technology in Mid-Wales, the Nature Discovery Centre in Berkshire or scour the National Trust website for more inspiration. Country shows are also brilliant for demonstrating how humanity can work in tandem with nature.
- Book a forest break like those offered by Forest Holidays