Environmental education can turn children off, but using their senses can switch them on again, say Joan Solomon and Steve Waters-Adams
Most people agree that environmental education is hugely important, that our environment is under threat and that children must be taught to protect it.
Our research shows that teaching by threat does not work, whereas contacting pupils' innate sense of awe and wonder may.
Environmental education is in the national curriculum, mostly under science. It is taught to pupils aged from five to 16.
Some schools draw up a "code" for environmental behaviour, which usually starts with "Pick up litter in the playground" and includes "Turn off the lights when you go out of a room" and "Put your kitchen waste on the compost heap".
Primary pupils are biddable enough, but adolescent students are not. The lure of "pond dipping" is not enough for them to give up their social time in order to clear out the biology pond or make a school nature reserve. By the time they are about 13 it is common to hear groans when the word "environment" is mentioned. Environmental education seems as doomed as admonitions about eating too many sweets and taking no exercise.
Changing actions is harder than changing responses to questionnaires. To change actions we need new values - awe and wonder, even love for our shrinking but beautiful natural environment.
In a project we are running at the University of Plymouth, we believe we can help to make that happen by encouraging children to use their senses - smell, taste and hearing (think of bats and grasshoppers), sight and touch (think of velvet or fine sand paper).
Sensing the natural environment can be like taking part in it.
Generally, children love animals. But when we recently asked Year 6 pupils what was their favourite activity in the environment, they put seeing the stars at night far higher than pond dipping or pet grooming. Next came watching clouds change shape as they move across the sky, and walking barefoot across warm sand. We can all remember the joy of doing that.
Our project group contains six teachers in primary schools by the sea in Devon, now being joined by others from the urban authority of Barking and Dagenham. The two teacher educators who lead the project do so "from behind". No one needs to push the national curriculum - we have confidence that teachers' and pupils' enthusiasm can lead us down one of the many directions outlined by the QCA.
We look to the teachers' suggestions about using light and colour, varieties of habitats, insects and trees, and the mixture of smells we recognise in the air around us.
Unexpected events can lead pupils to wonderful happenings. We include the water vapour that we breathe out to show how closely our activities resemble those of other animals and plants on our planet. We observe dew, frost and the visible rising of steam from warm water on freezing days.
Finally, we plan for our pupils to see the tiny fungi that grow on wet bread if it has been dropped on the ground. This familiar experiment suggests that all environments, from the Arctic circle to the tropics, carry the germ cells of microscopic life just as they did for our first ancestors some three billion years ago.
Joan Solomon is visiting professor and Steve Waters-Adams is a lecturer in science education at the University of Plymouth