A recent A-level biology trip to the Shropshire countryside worried me. The disconnection, and even fear, my fellow peers had for nature was quite frankly, shocking. In this blog I want to share with you my personal experiences relating to young people and nature and share my #VisionforNature - for more young people to have a respect for the natural world.
Before going on the trip, I already knew things weren't the best at my school when it came to young people's appreciation for nature. I go to school in Croydon, and although not everybody fits in with your typical South-London stereotype, I'm sure you can imagine how most people spend their spare time; and it appears to me that most people get annoyed at even the slightest mention of anything green.
I'm pretty certain most of my year, if not the whole school, know that I am a very keen photographer. I'm glad that my photography is appreciated, but I can't help feeling that the natural history aspect is widely ignored. People will ask me how my photography's going and they'll be interested to look at my images, but if I dare mention anything furred or feathered, they change the subject, or poke a bit of fun at me. Obviously, my closer set of peers are aware of my "obsession" with the natural world, but it remains the same that whenever nature need be mentioned, it's in a joking matter: even my form tutor can't help but take the mickey.
Despite all this, setting off on the coach to Shropshire I was confident that an escape from the urban jungle would prove enjoyable for many. I thought that the fresh-air, lush green fields and wildlife would prove to be just what my fellow teenagers needed to spark their imagination. Of course, some people enjoyed being in the countryside and for them it was a positive experience: they appreciated the nature that surrounded them, but as a whole I was unimpressed by the reactions.
"This place smells like sh*t!" was one of the first comments I heard when we arrived. "Where is everything!" another exclaimed. "This place looks so lame." another commented. I was beginning to question whether people even knew what the countryside was! People rushed into their rooms as quickly as frightened rabbits, ignoring what awaited them outside. They were oblivious to the buzzards soaring over the fields, unaware of the swallows nesting under the eaves and quite frankly couldn't care less about anything living apart from their own kind.
Carrying out field work was just as bad. Many were scared of frogs that we found, even the boys jumped up in the air in apparent fear. Some tried to refuse to enter a field because it contained livestock. People appeared terrified of anything that moved when carrying out the pond study; everything was either dangerous or dirty. Perhaps I'm exaggerating a little. People did get stuck in, but were not nearly as fascinated by the creatures as one would hope.
There was one occasion on the trip that got to me the most. We were at breakfast, just about to go and check the small mammal traps that we had set the night before. The girl sat opposite me made it clear she wasn't interested in checking the traps. Curious, I questioned her as to why. The obvious answer went something like:
I was already annoyed. I told her this was her once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see wild mice, shrews and voles that many will never have the privilege to observe. She wasn't impressed. I asked her:
"Shouldn't it excite you to see some of the amazing species that share this earth with us?"
"Are you telling me that I have to travel around the whole world and see every single animal that lives on it?"
She'd used the extreme argument on me. Of course that wasn't what I was saying. She, like many, was a lost cause. I don't think attitudes like that can ever change, and we need a respect for nature at a younger age.
"Re-connecting" young people with nature is a widely discussed conservation issue. There are so many opinions on the importance of nature, so many ideas about how we can get children involved in the outdoors, and so many different things to blame for the apparent disconnection that I could easily write a book about it - don't worry I'll remain fairly brief today.
There is no doubt in my mind that nature is important for us all. Studies of nature deficit disorder show that time spent outside increases happiness, health and well being. It's obvious to me that we need to make young people more respectful of the natural world that surrounds them from an earlier age.
But how do we go about re-building this appreciation for nature in children?
A recent poll by BBC wildlife asked "So, how do you reconnect children with nature?"
Myself, part of a 41% majority, said "Educate parents on better ways to get kids connected to nature." I had trouble choosing which option to vote for, but I think parents have a profound influence on children. Using a personal experience as an example: my parents often took me out to the countryside on holidays and walks and as I entered my teenage years they refused to let me have a games console, encouraging me to do something else to fill my time. This was to pick up a camera and start photographing wildlife. My parents didn't force me at all, but I think a little bit of persuasion from adults to enjoy the natural world can go a long way.
Saying this, I believe giving children time off school to explore the outdoors, making environmental studies a key part of the curriculum from an early age and reducing the amount of technology children have access to could all make a difference to how future generations view our natural world. How to you think we should encourage respect for the natural world? Are young people a lost cause in the modern world? More importantly, what's your #visionfornature?