Updated: Mar 1, 2019
Sometimes the older children become, it seems the less interested they become in nature and the outdoors. As an experiential educator in an international school setting, I work with children of all ages and nationalities and this trend can be difficult to ignore. Hit adolescence and it becomes harder and harder to engage young people in outdoor and environmental learning. And that's what prompted me to write this blog post.
Nature Disengagement Syndrome Among Teens!
This general disengagement with the natural world among older children was recently highlighted to me during a day of jungle trekking in Thailand with a class of teenage students. We pulled up to the trail in our vehicles bright and early. We had our rucksacks and hiking shoes on ready to go. The National Park rangers were briefed and ready to lead us into the depths of the rainforest, armed with machetes and essential supplies. We could hear the backdrop of rainforest insects chirping loudly in the understory.
A Wonderful Surprise
But something was different this time. As we stood there in the shade doing our final checks, there was rustling and movement in the jungle canopy. Suddenly a seed pod came tumbling down to the forest floor and disintegrated into pieces. As we gazed up at the sunshine peeping through the tree cover, we were welcomed by the beautiful sight of a healthy family of gibbons feeding on fruit. One of the mothers had a tiny gibbon baby hanging to her underbelly, and as she swung from branch to branch, I could feel the hairs on my neck stand on end. I was touched deep inside of my soul. This was a truly special and rare moment and, instinctively, I wanted to share it with my students.
Stunned, I hushed the teens to keep quiet, and I pointed towards the gibbon family dining in the canopy. Some of them looked confused; so I tried again, this time more excitably! "Look, look! A family of gibbons!" I said in an excitable whisper. But then I realized why there was a distinguishable lack of interest. A third or more of the teens had earphones in listening to music, and were looking glumly at the floor. Others were gazing at their smart phone screens. My heart sank.
And just as I turned, something else started moving among the trees. I could see a creature standing with black, white and yellow colors. Flapping it's long wings, it suddenly took off and glided from one tree branch to another. This could only mean one thing - our resident family of gibbons had been joined by hornbills, also foraging for breakfast! Neither the gibbons nor the hornbills appeared to be the least bit concerned that they were sharing a meal side-by-side in the same spot of forest!
"So is this the future of the next generation? Will they be burying their heads in viral YouTube videos rather than reading books? Will they be viewing wildlife through video screens rather than with their own eyes? Will they be playing virtual reality sports on computer consoles rather than actively playing?"
In more than 10 years of working in experiential education, in some of the world's most stunning environments, I could count on two hands the number of times I've seen endangered and beautiful wildlife in such close proximity and abundance naturally in the wild. What a truly incredible experience!
Smart Phones to the Sky
But back to my students. Finally, with a few nudges they noticed some commotion and glanced up to see the wildlife spectacle going on above their heads. And then... wait... you guessed it... they turned their smart phones to the sky and began live video recording the animals. I thought to myself "Wait, if you just want to watch wildlife through a screen, why not stay at home and watch the National Geographic channel on TV instead?!"
"Unless children are immersed in outdoor play from early childhood and learn to become ecologically literate, how can we expect them to take an active interest in environmental issues further down the line?"
After 15 seconds of video recording, one of my female students said loudly "Okay, seen it. Got it on video. Can we go now sir?" And then it struck me. Nowadays children don't just consume products (like clothes, music, movies and video games), but they even consume experiences. By simply ticking them off with what I call the "Seen It, Done It!" mentality, they seem to move rapidly from one experience to the next, without ever really enjoying or gaining anything from any of them. Deeply troubled, my team and I immediately banned all devices and requested that the students left their phones, mp3s and tablets in the vans. No photos. No music. No social media. No calls. Absolutely nothing tech related for the next few hours.
I must point out that permitting teens to use their devices in school or on outdoor education trips can be something of a grey area. I must admit, smart devices can come in handy for researching, as calculators or as cameras. There are even apps designed to aid identifying species of wild herbs and plants, which can help support the learning process and spark interest among children. Add the fact that lots of parents want their kids to be connected and contactable around the clock, and device usage can quickly become a controversial issue for parents, teachers and students alike.
The Future is Green, Not Screens!
Is this the future of the next generation? Will they be burying their heads in viral YouTube videos rather than reading books? Will they be viewing wildlife through video screens rather than with their own eyes? Will they be playing virtual reality sports on computer consoles rather than actively playing?
"In more than 10 years of working in experiential education, in some of the world's most stunning environments, I could count on two hands the number of times I've seen endangered and beautiful wildlife in such close proximity and abundance naturally in the wild."
Unless we intervene soon, I fear this is exactly the way we might be heading. Unless children are immersed in outdoor play from early childhood and learn to become ecologically literate, how can we expect them to take an active interest in environmental issues further down the line? How can kids develop a deep appreciation of the beauty and complexity of the natural world unless they're regularly experiencing it first-hand? How can we teach children how to occupy themselves without a device and fully appreciate their experiences in nature?
Reconnecting Youth to Nature
Interestingly, once banned my teenage students were predictably upset and pleaded with our team to reverse our decision. But eventually it forced them to talk to each other and take a more active interest in their surroundings. They asked our Park Rangers questions. They laughed and joked. And suddenly I felt a warm feeling and I realized all was not lost. We can connect children to nature, but we must do it now and we must do it soon through hands-on, place-based learning experiences that bring the natural planet to life outside the classroom.
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