Growing up in the 60s and 70s
Our local stream was a quick five-minute ride from home. In these pre-mountain bike days our 3 speeds made the rough track to the bridge hugely exciting. The stream was a wilderness of old willows, a shifting riverbed and a busy road bridge. For much of my early adolescence I played, swam, camped, cooked over fires, fished, fought and generally mucked about in this wilderness. My parents, mostly unaware of what we were up to, didn’t care – provided we were home for tea.
That was growing up in the sixties and seventies. A free-range childhood. We didn’t know about stranger danger, endangered species, ozone depletion or climate change. We did know every nook and cranny of that streambed.
Growing up today — it’s different
Today our children have different experiences. They spend more time IndoorsThey do more organised sport in human-created environments of asphalt and turf. Our children are well informed about the decline of natural values; our ever-increasing list of endangered species and habitats at risk. Nature has become a doom and gloom story.
Nature-deficit an alarming trend
Author Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods explores the divide between children and the outdoors. He calls the lack of nature in the lives of today's wired generation, nature-deficit. He attributes nature-deficit to some of the most disturbing childhood trends such as the rise in obesity, attention disorders, and depression.
It is true that for all of human history children have spent much of their time outside either playing or being in nature. It is part of what and who we are – we’re genetically wired to need nature. Louv argues that treasured moments of wonder in nature, such as discovering what exists on the underside of a rock or hearing the wind in the leaves, are a rich source of spiritual growth.
While better informed, our children are being put off nature
In recent years I have taken interest in this so-called nature deficit disorder. I’ve wondered about what it is to be a Kiwi; the relationship we have with our natural heritage; what we think about 100% Pure; and what the separation of a large proportion of our children from the natural world will mean for New Zealand and Planet Earth.
Our students are arguably better informed about their global environment than ever before. Their awareness of the natural world is largely through television and the Internet; their awareness more an abstraction than a personal reality. The message delivered inadvertently through schools and the media is that the outdoors is dangerous. Regulations and expectations of safety make playgrounds too safe. There is little room for creativity and expression. Our children’s environment is increasingly de-natured and their perceptions of the natural world are devoid of personal experiences.
What does this mean for the likes of virtual field trips? The answer is surprising.
So perhaps you’re thinking this is all a bit rich coming from the Project Director of a virtual field trip programme? Well it could be if student involvement in virtual field trips (VFTs) resulted in less time spent outdoors. The evidence suggests otherwise. Teachers are telling us that students are inspired during VFTs by getting to know people who work in the outdoors. They are motivated to learn more about conservation and want to get involved. The student experience with environmental VFTs is creating a desire to get out and do stuff in the outdoors.
Look at some of the feedback we’ve received:
The children were enthralled by this trip. They all want to go and walk the Routeburn for real now! A great way to 'hook' the children in. So interactive and 'real'.
– Joanne Mortimer from Weston School
Students found it very engaging and enjoyed being able to go on the LEARNZ website at home as well. One student and their family is now going to go and walk the Routeburn Track next school holidays.
– Te Whaea Ireland from Karoro School
They developed their knowledge of pest threats in NZ and also developed a positive attitude to how they can help with campaigns like Project Crimson & Living Legends. LEARNZ is an excellent programme.
– Philip Lightbourne from Kairanga School
The biggest benefit was being able to relate to it on a personal level and also to be able to follow up on it in our local community.
– Jane Pearson from Hira School
My students enjoyed it and learnt so much. They were inspired and did their own projects on kauri dieback.
– Julia Kippen from St Mark's School (Pakuranga
LEARNZ is wonderful for those students who learn in different ways e.g. listening (and they can refer back to recordings to check information). We are now interested in "adopting" a local reserve and planting some natives, including kauri.
– Debra Sheeran from Pukenui School
We also followed up with a visit in our local area to a native bush stand.
– Vicki Karetai from Brooklyn School Motueka
We are now going to visit the local bush and observe our trees.
– Sharlene Tornquist from Kaiwaka School
Virtual field trips could be a vehicle for a real-life appreciation of nature
We haven’t designed our VFTs to necessarily achieve outdoor activity outcomes. But why don’t we?
The evidence is that LEARNZ VFTs have the capability to motivate large numbers of students. So what if we placed more emphasis on action outcomes from our VFTs? What if we partnered with organisations that could broker relationships between schools and local environmental projects? What if virtual field trips became a platform for energising and mobilising the imagination and spirit of young people? And what if there was a campaign to soak up that energy where young people could get involved with nature.
Your comments welcome
What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts about nature deficit. How can we restore that age-old relationship between people and the planet? If you've seen your students inspired by a LEARNZ field trip, what were the outcomes? How might we organise ourselves to harness that inspiration and get kids outdoors?