Throughout my time in environmental education, I have seen children from all walks of life and two key points are consistent.
The first: No matter their age, their background or socio-economic situation, children are fascinated by nature. They love talking about it, they love being outside in it and they love sharing stories and experiences. Never once has a child hated a lesson on local animals.
And second, they simply do not get enough wild time. I often find that my programs will be one of only a handful of opportunities, if not the only opportunity, for these young people to have a lesson solely on wildlife. I return to many of the same classes year after year. The excited looks on their faces as I enter the classroom is of course wonderful for me, but ultimately a stark reminder that in many cases this is their one chance this year to learn about, share and discuss wildlife in depth. Many teachers of course are wildlife lovers themselves. They are not denying children the opportunities; they simply do not have the resources.
I love my job. I love going from school to school, from child to child sharing my passion whilst listening to their stories and often their solutions to environmental issues. Some of the stories they tell me are unbelievable, from the little boy who once woke up to find a cougar eating a deer on his deck to the little girl who shares what is arguably a friendship with a barred owl that has lived in her garden for three years.
But to say that this job is all rainbows and sunshine would be a lie. Experiences like speaking to children who have never visited a local nature reserve because their parents simply cannot afford the bus or asking a young pupil why he was not wearing a raincoat on a nature walk on a wet winter’s day in Vancouver, only to get the response ‘I do not have a coat, because I am not allowed outside in the rain’ can make this job both frustrating and sad. Over the last four years I have seen more than 35,000 children mostly in Canada, but also in the UK, and the situation in both places is the same.
The number one challenge that we face is funding. Every year is simply a struggle to survive. Whilst there are many wonderful businesses, foundations and multi-nationals willing to give money to environmental education and some limited government funding, it simply is not enough to meet the demand. If we want to seriously adopt environmental education on a wider scale, more money has to be given to non-profit organisations, which often cannot pay staff to deliver programs or get funding to cover administrative costs. Schools are often so stretched that paying for extra curricular activities for all their students is simply not possible.
I focus my programs on local wildlife, highlighting the species they could see in their area. When dealing with a such a variety of students, adaptation is key, ensuring that each program is geared to that class is the difference between connecting with them or not. Young people in the city, for example, face different challenges than those in the countryside. To me, this highlights another challenge to environmental education, particularly when thinking about it being added to the classroom experience.
We live in a very structured and standardised world. The school environment in particular can be like this, and whilst I do not see this as a negative thing, when thinking about environmental education, it is often not structured, in fact it’s the opposite: it’s mostly organised chaos. So in order for environmental education to work, we have to change our approach. Environmental education should be seen as an opportunity to give students a sense of freedom to explore the environment, a topic with no tests, no progress reports or pressure.
Activities such as building bird boxes, researching animals, visiting a local park, dissecting owl pellets, touching trees or pond dipping should be on the agenda. With many teachers already drowning in work and stress, the idea of having to learn to build a bird box or brush up on their bird identification may seem daunting and unappealing.
That’s where the non-profits and environmental educators come in. We know how to plan programs. We can put together a series of lessons throughout the school year, having this in the curriculum does not have to add to the teachers’ workload. It again comes down to the main challenge of money; give environmental education money and non-profits can develop and deliver programs and give schools the time to include them in the school year.
The final challenge in environmental education is the message we deliver. I think that when talking about the environment and wildlife it is very easy, particularly for those of us who have studied and watched it for a number of years, to be a little negative and focus on the problems. Whilst the reality is of course that wildlife is in serious decline and the environment is facing issues, we have to be careful how we convey this and the importance of giving a positive, lasting impression cannot be underestimated. Wildlife can be seen in a negative way in society and this is something that is picked up on by children.
To have someone talking about wildlife in a positive and enthusiastic way is far more likely to engage and spark interest. Wildlife issues can seem too big and overwhelming, but by breaking them down and keeping it simple with a positive message, young people can see how they can find solutions to the problems.
I am so incredibly lucky to do what I do. How many people can spend their morning showing children species in their school playground and the afternoon learning about the importance of the wolf from First Nations’ children? My job is a privilege and whilst I would not go as far as to say I am incredibly important, environmental education is. It has known benefits to not only the environment but to students; it improves their health, their wellbeing, their concentration and their schoolwork.
I will continue to advocate and push for environmental education to be added to the curriculum and for adequate funding to be provided to schools and non-profits so that students from all backgrounds can get access to nature, something they deserve and ultimately need.
What makes nature so wonderful is that it is non-discriminatory and inclusive, and it can have a positive impact on anyone. I truly believe that if we want to protect our environment and reverse the damage we have caused, our governments must provide environmental education in the classroom to every child that goes to school. They do not get much credit, but let me tell you, the children in school today are some of the most environmentally conscious people you will meet. They want to learn, they want to share and ultimately they want to make a difference.
That is the positive message moving forward. Let’s make it happen!