Time to make nature studies a compulsory school subject – before it’s too late

Clint Witchalls

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The UK government is reported to be seriously considering making “nature studies” a compulsory subject for all pupils. It’s a move that was recommended in the recent government-commissioned Dasgupta review, a detailed analysis of the “economics of biodiversity”.

The review is long and technical, but in among the tables and statistics, there are some radical suggestions that go beyond a focus on economics alone, recommendations designed to transform our relationship with the natural world before it is too late. Among options for rethinking supply chains, measures of economic progress and financial regulation, right at the end is a brief focus on education:

“Every child in every country is owed the teaching of natural history, to be introduced to the awe and wonder of the natural world, to appreciate how it contributes to our lives.”

The review calls for environmental education programmes from primary school all the way through to university.

Rediscovering our connection to nature

Would it really make any difference? As an academic who teaches, writes and undertakes research on the social and psychological significance of contact with nature, especially in the context of our ongoing ecological crisis, I believe there’s good reason to think it could.

Introduced to the ‘awe and wonder of the natural world’. Monkey Business Images / shutterstock

Take the idea of an “extinction of experience”, which refers to how each subsequent generation has less sensory contact with diverse natural environments. As meaningful connection disappears, our sense of what is normal is gradually redefined – the “shifting baseline syndrome”, to borrow a related concept. As standard experiences of nature become increasingly narrow and empty, the fear is that we also lose our ability to understand, care for and defend the natural world, and a rapid cycle of mutual decline is underway.

Experience-based environmental education could be an important tool for reversing this shift. Recent research confirms common sense in this regard – repeated, positive (which does not mean unchallenging) experiences of natural environments in early childhood underpin a deep and lifelong attachment to nature into adulthood.

To counter the extinction of experience, it makes sense to proactively design an education system that will foster an attachment to nature. There are positive precedents here already, not least the growth of Forest Schools, which originated in Scandinavia but are now a global movement advocating the social and educational value of spending part of the school day in nature. Continuing the study of ecology into adulthood also seems like a necessary step if we are to collectively address the shifting baseline syndrome, by actively facing up to what is being lost.

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