Can playtime be springboard for saving the world?

17th April 2009 at 01:00

Wall-to-wall tarmac and, if you're lucky, wall-to-wall mown grass beyond. Whichever school you care to think about, past or present, the chances are that this has been the basic outdoor experience for children. No one has ever said this is the best environment to learn or play in - it simply was the cheapest.

Mercifully, school landscapes are changing at all key stages. As they do, we need to consider what teaching and learning is going on there and why. We especially need to identify what are good design principles, most supportive grounds maintenance contracts, appropriate outdoor classroom management strategies and whole curriculum content that leads to better education.

These days, I often find the environmental imperative is my starting point for exploring this issue. Overwhelming scientific evidence has convinced the world's politicians that humanity's profligate practices are changing the global climate in a damaging way. Even worse, climate change seems to be happening at a faster rate than predicted. If the children we are teaching today are to have a future worth living, we need to set in place a cultural change towards a more sustainable future quickly.

Our national curriculum offers official coercion in this respect, but the big question remains: "What does effective education for cultural change towards a more sustainable future look like?"

A useful starting point is to examine the culture of childhood today. A common experience is that, over two short generations, there has seen a massive withdrawal from a childhood rich in environmental experiences. Gone are those childhoods of endless, unsupervised play outdoors communing with nature. Little did we know then that such a childhood was developing a bond between people and nature that has been described by some researchers as an environmental memory. The theory is that if we can enter adulthood with a large environmental memory, we will be better equipped to make more sustainable lifestyle decisions.

It is interesting to reflect that Scandinavian countries refrain from formal teaching of reading and writing until a child has had six or seven years of learning through outdoor play. It's also interesting to consider if there is any correlation with the fact that these countries have the best recycling rates in Europe, while Wales has one of the worst. Is a bigger environmental memory at play, influencing behaviour at all levels of society?

As a result of the retreat from unsupervised outdoor play, I now believe that we have to plan for the 4Es - early, essential, environmental experiences - in school time.

Environmental experiences need to start in very early childhood, and the foundation phase does acknowledge this. In this example, environmental memory is being developed alongside literacy in a synergistic way. Literacy skills are best developed when the learner has an overwhelming urge to communicate. From experience, I know that when a child sees a caterpillar munching its way over a leaf for the first time, this feeling of awe and wonder creates an irresistible urge to share this environmental experience, to communicate. This is an ideal stimulus to introduce a child to the picture book The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Often, we are trying to teach children to read so they have an indirect environmental experience. The author probably envisioned it the other way round - the environmental experience providing the overwhelming incentive to want to learn to read about a shared knowledge.

How many foundation phase teachers will have, as standard practice, the opportunity to go out into the school grounds with a class and observe caterpillars on a given day each year? It's quite a challenge.

Will we find a progression of environmental experiences enhancing the curriculum through the key stages?

Consider this: climate change models predict that by 2050 we almost definitely will have lost 20 per cent of all the variety of life on Earth. It could easily be 70 per cent. This prediction causes me to lament this phase of mass extinction.

Poetry can provide a vehicle to express such emotions. How many GCSE students have enough environmental memory to go into their school grounds and lament poetically about the loss of species around them? How many pupils have the observational skills and descriptive language to identify, through poetry or prose, the common plants and animals that inhabit their school surroundings?

I've laboured a theme here, partly to emphasise the importance for extending learning into the outdoors. Well developed school grounds originate from a vision for learning and play that is shared by everyone. The reality is that the best way to manage school grounds is to use them, and the best way to use them is across the curriculum. The best school grounds are designed to facilitate good teaching and to be exciting places for children to play in and civilising places to socialise in.

- Trevor Roach Environmental education consultant and former head of education at the National Botanic Garden of Wales.

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