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What trees can teach us about the internet (sponsored)

The internet has forever changed the way that humans interact. But plants have been using similar networks since before it even existed

Mission wood wide web

The internet has forever changed the way that humans interact. But plants have been using similar networks since before it even existed

Imagine an information superhighway that connects large, diverse and disparate populations.  A network that is largely positive and supportive, and works to help its more vulnerable individuals. On occasion though, the network is threatened by parasitic behaviour that uses the connections to harm and possibly destroy it users.

While this may sound like a description of the internet and online trolls, it’s also an example of the secret networks that lie beneath our feet that have existed for millions of years. This Safer Internet Day, why not use the Earth’s natural internet to help students learn how the internet works and how to keep themselves safe online.

In his hugely popular 2008 TED Talk, scientist Paul Stamets talks about a complex mycorrhizal network made of fungi that helps trees and plants to communicate with each other to aid survival.

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In 1997, Suzanne Simard proved that trees from different species can transfer nutrients to each other via this network, with some acting as donors, helping younger trees or those in the shade to get the required nutrients.

But mycorrhizal networks are not just flows of nutrients; research has shown that plants can use the network to warn each other of pests. Plants connected through a mycorrhizal network were able to increase their aphid defence mechanisms when an individual plant was under attack.

The example of a mycorrhizal network provides a fun and original way for teachers to introduce internet safety by drawing examples from the natural world. Ask students to think of ways trees could help each other, what kinds of messages they would send if they were in danger or needed more food, and how trees might keep themselves safe if the network became contaminated. These questions can be used to get students to consider their own actions and safety online while also learning about the natural world.

'Wood wide web'

Like trees and plants, young people in schools today have grown up in a world where they are connected by a near-invisible network. The internet, like the mycorrhizal networks, has the ability to improve the lives of young people through greater connections and access to knowledge.

However, the internet is also full of dangers. You can use the example of what has become known as the “wood wide web” to show students how networks can help nurture and protect each other, offering a powerful analogy for discussing internet safety. This is the basis of the free Mission World Wide Web resource, which offers two activities to teach primary students about the internet and the wood wide web of mycorrhizal networks.

The first mission is aimed at teaching students how the internet works as a physical connection of computers, and how this presents opportunities and challenges for communication and collaboration. It includes hands-on activities such as seeing how long it takes for a photo to be viewed by everyone in that class, demonstrating our connectivity.

Some schools expand this even further by sharing a photo on to social networks to see how far that image can be shared in a day. This example from Nathan Ashman from St. Wilfrids CE School, Blackburn managed to be shared on every continent, with a distance ranging from Australia to Canada in less than 24 hours.

This activity brings to life the abstract concept of how information is shared online, and can lead to important discussions about image control and sharing secrets.

'Unplugging' from the network

The second part of the activity encourages students to conduct fieldwork to explore the wood wide web and learn about the environmental factors that affect plant growth and the interdependence of plants through the underground fungal network. Through experimentation and investigation, students can understand how trees can use this network to communicate, in a similar way to how humans use of the internet. Exploring some of the ways that trees protect themselves from poisonous species like the black walnut by “unplugging” from the network are also really powerful ways of getting students to consider how they can keep themselves safe online from risks such as cyberbullying.

These comparisons are a really powerful way of helping to connect young students to their natural environment, while simultaneously teaching them about how the internet works and how they can keep themselves safe online.

In a world where children are often criticised for staring at screens rather than enjoying the great outdoors, what better way to teach a lesson about internet safety then by using examples from the natural world? Like the natural networks used by trees, the internet has the power to unify people helping them to be stronger together. Let’s teach our students the power of working together to keep each other safe on this Safer Internet Day.

Nic Ford is academic deputy head at Bolton School (Boys’ Division)

Mission World Wide Web is a collaboration between the Pod, EDF Energy’s digital schools programme and EdTech Bright Little Labs. Find out more about the Pod and sign up