I am a teacher and until a couple of years ago I had taught in a fantastic Special School in the South East of Ireland for nearly 20 years. I originally trained in Germany, where I’m from, and a large part of our training, and my own special interest in university, was nature pedagogy. The big buzz word at the time was “integration” in the sense that curriculum content was not taught in a compartmentalised style, but integrated into wider themes, often seasonal, nature related topics.
At the time the education system was trying to get away from frontal, traditional and mainly book based approaches, and move towards a more experiential style of education. Well known concepts such as “learning by doing”, “reading through writing”, nature pedagogy, project work and more alternative schools of thought such as Steiner/Waldorf, Montessori and Sudbury had a renaissance. Elements of all the above were making their way into mainstream education, much to the delight of myself and many of my fellow students at university.
But even before my own studies, childhood experiences in primary school were often connected to the outdoors and our local environment. We didn’t have school tours, we had “Wandertag” 3 to 4 times a year, a day when we would bring a rucksack with packed lunches and weatherproof clothing, heading off and exploring the local countryside for the day. We’re talking 40+ years ago but even then we were not allowed to bring single use packaging in our lunchboxes and we were taught an awareness and care for our natural environment. In the region I come from we used to have severe winters with snow, ice and temperatures sometimes plummeting down to minus 20 degrees celsius. That didn’t mean we would stay inside, we all had warm winter gear and loved playing outside at breaktime in all weathers.
Going back to my teaching years, I was extremely fortunate to work in a school with an amazing principal who thought outside the box and supported us in any approach, that we considered beneficial for our students’ educational, emotional or more specific needs. For me personally that meant bringing our golden retriever “Harry” to work, taking the children bareback horse riding (vaulting), going for nature walks, planting a garden, visiting diverse natural environments, using a multi-sensory approach to experience nature as fully as possible, modelling an eco-friendly and sustainable attitude to students and staff etc. As I had no children of my own in the first years of my teaching career I had lost touch with the mainstream education system for a while until I became a mum myself and our daughters started to go to school.
It very soon dawned on me that the mainstream education system had a very different set of priorities. Even though the first couple of years were slightly more play-based, it quickly became apparent that the focus was on academic performance, and teaching styles were geared towards this priority with a mainly book based and assessment-heavy approach. The school day in Ireland is very long and children sometimes as young as 4 are still expected to do more table top homework after a day of mainly sedentary activities. School yards, with few exceptions are mainly tarmac areas and the active, hands-on engagement in a natural environment is minimal. Teachers’ hands are tied as they have to act within a framework that does not really honour learning styles or children’s natural desire to explore, move and experiment, preferably outside in Nature.
We are now living in times where nobody can deny the dire state of our planet Earth anymore, yet the education system (that includes the political system governing it) is not reacting to this crisis apart from including the factual information into the curriculum and doing a few token programs and activities such as “Green Schools” here in Ireland for example. Children are acutely aware of the threat to their future and this is becoming very obvious in the rise of anxiety disorders and “new” representations such as eco-anxiety and eco-fear, yet their opportunities to make positive and empowering nature connections is minimal.
This is not meant as a criticism of schools, principals and certainly not teachers, but we all, parents, teachers and members of society, are failing our children if we are not standing up and demanding an immediate reform of the education system and the priorities within it.
We do not need more successful, yet stressed out hedge fund managers or burnt out CEO’s of global companies, who are part of the cause of our modern day dilemma in the first place. We don’t need more economic growth and inflated capitalism, quite the opposite in actual fact… We need innovators, protectors, empaths, activists, scientists, healers, explorers… and more important than anything, physically, mentally and emotionally healthy children and adults who are empowered, inspired and proactive in order to move forwards and upwards through these challenging times.