National College of Ireland and An Taisce team up to facilitate Natural Environment learning for Inner City Children
On the 27th of May, Alannah Ní Cheallaigh-Mhuirí of An Taisce facilitated a pilot outdoor education workshop with children from ELI’s Doodle Den after-school programme, at Morehampton Grove Wildlife Sanctuary.
“Natural places are singularly engaging, stimulating, life-enhancing environments where children can reach new depths of understanding about themselves, their abilities and their relationship with the world around them.” Tim Gill, a leading commentator on childhood. [Note 1]
In 2012 the UK’s National Trust published Natural Childhood [Note 2], a report by Stephen Moss, which examines the phenomenon known as ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ and gathers current thinking on establishing a connection between children and the natural environment. The benefits of developing a healthy relationship with nature at a young age are manifold and fall broadly into four categories: health, education, communities and environment.
Health benefits include a decreased risk of childhood obesity, improved physical fitness, improved mental health and even longevity. In one study, “exposure to nature improved symptoms of ADHD in children threefold compared with staying indoors. [Note 3] Exposure to the natural environment can reduce stress and aggressive behaviour in all children, and give them a greater sense of self-worth. [Note 4] Even short term ‘doses’ of nature can make a marked impact on mental health – indeed, as little as five minutes of ‘green exercise’ can improve mood and self-esteem by a significant margin.” [Note 5] From an educational perspective, child psychologist Aric Sigman concluded that “children exposed to nature scored higher on concentration and self-discipline; improved their awareness, reasoning and observational skills; did better in reading, writing, maths, science and social studies; were better at working in teams; and showed improved behaviour overall.” [Note 6]
The positive impacts of exposure to a natural environment can be far reaching, for communities, wider society and the environment. “Studies have shown that even in cases where the only variable is the view of green space from a window, incidences of crime are reduced by as much as 50%.” [Note 7] Of particular relevance in terms of An Taisce’s work is that “only adults who experience nature as children are likely to be motivated to protect the environment”.
Dr William Bird of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds commented that “The critical age of influence appears to be before 12 years. Before this age contact with nature in all its forms, but in particular wild nature, appears to strongly influence a positive behaviour towards the environment.” [Note 8]
Researchers from the UCD School of Geography, with the four Dublin local authorities and the Office of Public Works, mapped the trees across Dublin city and found that there is huge disparity in tree canopy [Note 9]. Residents of Ballsbridge, Dublin 4, are up to 20 times more likely to have a tree on their street than those living in Dublin’s north inner city. How can we expect children who have grown up in a nature-poor landscape to care for it at all in later life? Shouldn’t all children have the opportunity to experience nature?
Alannah Ní Cheallaigh-Mhuirí explained, “Undoubtedly the earlier in life a relationship with nature can be fostered the better; for the sake of communities, the environment and especially the children themselves, for whom the many benefits mentioned must add up to a greatly enhanced quality of life. That’s why I designed this workshop - to allow a group of children aged 5-6 years old from the North inner city, to experience and learn about wildlife while at the same time tying in the language and literacy skills central to NCI's Early Learning Initiative 'Doodle Den' program*".
This An Taisce property is exemplary in demonstrating how nature can flourish in the city if allowed even a small space to do so. Alannah Ní Cheallaigh-Mhuirí continued “‘The Grove’ is otherworldly in a way; once you step through the gate you are immersed in green light and the scent of wild garlic. For children it is like The Secret Garden. These inner city children took to being ‘nature explorers’ like ducks to water, learning to differentiate between trees and exploring for creatures in the pond while being respectful and considerate about their impact.”
The property is first and foremost a space for wildlife, so consideration was given to the size of the group and the potential impact of the workshop on the space. Note that such workshops will not be a regular occurrence in the Grove in order to avoid negative impacts for wildlife, but that this pilot could be replicated in other green spaces around the country. Alannah Ní Cheallaigh-Mhuirí concluded, “This workshop offered a brief, but I believe, valuable experience for all involved. Early Years Education offers the scope to develop an ecologically-grounded, more healthy and fulfilled society from the bottom up.”
Andrew Dineen, a progressive thinker in early years education who works with the children, believes that "moving towards an emergent, place based, ecologically focused, framework for early years' development is the next necessary step in the development of early childhood education and care in Ireland".
*The Early Learning Initiative (ELI) at the National College of Ireland (NCI) was developed to address the problem of educational underachievement in marginalised communities.
- Gill, T. (2009) Now for free-range childhood, in Guardian, 2nd April 2009. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/apr/02/children-safety
- Faber Taylor, A. et al (2001) Coping with ADD: The Surprising Connection to Green Play Settings. Environment and Behaviour. 33 (Jan 2001) pp. 54–77.
- Various studies, quoted in Bird, William (2007) Natural Thinking. RSPB pp. 12–13.
- Thompson Coon, J., Boddy, K., Stein, K., Whear, R., Barton, J. and Depledge, M.H. (2011) Does participating in physical activity in outdoor natural environments have a greater effect on physical and mental wellbeing than physical activity indoors? A systematic review. Environmental science & technology, 45(5), pp.1761-1772.
- Sigman, A. (2007) Agricultural Literacy: Giving concrete children food for thought. http://www.face-online.org.uk/resources/news/Agricultural%20Literacy.pdf
- Kuo F.E. and Sullivan W.C. (2001) Environment and Crime in the inner City. Does vegetation reduce crime?
- http://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/naturalthinking_tcm9-161856.pdf, p.55.