Last year I spent time at Eltham Hill School in South East London meeting and filming a class of teenage schoolgirls for PROJECT WILD THING. I am the self-appointed Marketing Director for Nature. I needed to understand what children (my target market) thought of nature (my product).
With a couple of exceptions, their feelings and experiences were overwhelmingly negative. One girl complained about the miserable weather. Another, her hair in tight ringlets, told a story of how her mum made them go out for a walk. It was raining and her mother pushed up the hood of her raincoat. 'I looked like a walking crisp packet', she moaned. Classmates giggled.
I got out my battered leather suitcase to see if I could change anyone's mind. It is my travelling-salesman style product display unit. Opening the lid reveals a model of a tranquil pastoral scene: a green landscape cut into by a winding stream. Rabbits frolic. Here, I said, here is my product. Here is nature.
'But outside doesn't look like that', one girl countered. If nature looked like it did in my suitcase, then she'd spend time outdoors. 'But it doesn't. Nowhere in London looks like that'.
London may not be all rolling fields, but it is full of nature. It is one of the greenest cities in the world. Seen from the sky, more than half of London's footprint is green or blue. Yet for many children, this isn't nature. Nature's what you see on Springwatch. The local park is boring by comparison.
You can hear this from children and teenagers across the country. And the implications are terrible. If a generation grows up thinking their local outdoors is a bit rubbish, why would they care as swathes of green belt disappear or species become extinct?
They won't, says, Chris Rose, a seasoned environmental campaigner. The environmental movement has worried for too long about children trampling on rare species, he told me. In fact, the far bigger risk is not knowing and so not being able to actively care about nature. "If people don't understand something they can't care for it, if they can't identify it they don't know if it's going to go or if it's gone". He has a wonderful solution too. He co-founded The Fairyland Trust. It gives families great days out while educating them about nature (in a very cool and relaxed way - you hardly know you are learning).
Last week's report from the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change is crystal clear. If we don't take major steps to reduce carbon emissions, we're 30 years from a climate calamity. My own generation has failed. That includes me. We have not taken the steps needed to reverse the risks. It is up to my children to clean up.
As Chris says:
'Whether or not children understand or engage with nature really determines what the next generation is going to do about a lot of the big problems that face our environment and our planet, but also what sort of quality of life the next generation has.'
But will they engage? I'm not so sure. They don't love their local natural environment. They don't understand how a changing climate endangers that environment. Why should we expect them to bother?
A generation that grows up completely disconnected from and bored by nature will find themselves reconnected the hard way, by rising sea levels, heatwaves and droughts.
Please take children outside.
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