The journey to environmental education
The planet that our children and grandchildren will inherit is in crisis. Dealing with this will be the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced. In a world where children are increasingly disconnected from nature, having these conversations with our younger citizens is not easy - but it is absolutely essential. Knowledge is power and the only way we can solve these issues is to understand them, feel empowered to tackle them and feel a responsibility for our planet. This is why Earthwatch Europe, supported by SC Johnson, has been working with London East Teacher Training Alliance (LETTA), engaging Trainee Teachers so that they have the tools, understanding and drive to pass these important lessons on to the children they teach in an empowering way.
Why do we need environmental education?
In the UK, many children spend as little as 16 minutes in nature a day, with research suggesting that at least 75% of UK children spend less time outdoors than prisoners. Deprivation further increases the gap between people and their access to nature: research suggests that people of lower socio-economic status or those from areas of deprivation visit outdoor spaces less. This is primarily due to a lack of accessibility or poor quality of greenspace. In the UK, around 90% of people live in towns or cities, where access to greenspaces often decreases. These facts and figures may be concerning, but by working with teachers in urban areas experiencing deprivation, we aim to reach the children most impacted by nature disconnection. In reaching one teacher directly, we indirectly reach all the students they will go on to teach. By equipping educators with the skills to deliver impactful and insightful environmental lessons, we ensure that learning continues from lesson to lesson, providing the opportunity for change to be mobilised on a large and sustained scale. Fixing the disconnect with nature is essential to conservation and environmental action efforts. Research conducted by the RSPB suggests that a deeper connection to nature encourages positive behaviour change, making people more likely to act for the environment. The benefits also stretch to the individuals themselves - diminished connection to the outdoors has a negative impact on people’s mental health and well-being, and a recent study found that spending as little as two hours outside a week could show drastic improvements.
What’s involved in environmental education?
We have been working with LETTA for several years and on this project, supported by SC Johnson, we have engaged 209 educators directly and 430 educators indirectly, representing 6,060 students, and more than 100 schools. During the COVID-19 lockdowns we ran online workshops and training events and in July 2021 two groups of 30 teachers were able to join us in Epping Forest, London, for a day of hands-on training.
First, we got the teachers thinking about environmental issues. We played the ‘why’ game to explore their current understanding of environmental issues, and to get to the root of why these problems occur. Teachers were given an environmental statement and were asked to think like a child (ie to not accept their first explanation of the issue, but keep asking why). This took us right to the root of issues, which we then discussed and considered the reasons for them.
Next, we wanted to give the teachers an example of why outdoor learning is so important for children. We gave them 15 minutes to go out into nature, to put themselves into the minds of a child and do what they think their students might do if given this freedom. Some took the time to be mindful in nature, some created art, others observed wildlife, and most of them came back with a stick! We came back and reflected on how they felt, and what that might mean for the children in their schools.
We spent the rest of the session showcasing different activities that can be done in the classroom or in a sparse playground or school ground with little or no greenery. Most of the schools in the LETTA Partnership are based in Newham and Tower Hamlets, in areas with limited outdoor space and minimal greenspace on site. Trips to parks in London can also be difficult for teachers to arrange, so it is vital that our activities provide ways to connect to nature with little resource and low costs.
Teachers could try out the activities, consider learning outcomes and curriculum links, and discuss how this could fit in their own classroom or workspace. We also worked to provide adaptations that might suit their particular situations.
You can access some of these activities (and many more!) on the Earthwatch Education platform, where we provide free ideas and resources for educators.
Our groups then made plans for the coming academic year, describing ways they would include outdoor education opportunities in their own lesson plans and day-to-day teaching. We asked them to reflect on their time in Epping Forest, and how just a few hours out in nature impacted them personally, and what in turn it could do for the children they teach.
When asked what three words would describe their day, this is what the group came up with:
In the meantime, make sure you are taking time to connect with nature! We don’t all have Epping Forest on our doorstep, but most of us can find a little patch of green or blue to take advantage of the incredible healing power of nature.