50 for the Future – Environmental education

Our recent publication, 50 for the Future, lists 50 things that we believe should happen in Scotland over the next 50 years to benefit both people and wildlife. In this week's 50 for the Future article, the Trust's Chairman, Robin Harper, explains why putting environmental education at the heart of the curriculum is of such importance.


Number 46: Put environmental education at the heart of the curriculum and inspire the next generation to become stewards of the natural world


Last year, I spent a delightful afternoon in the Borders with a Scottish Wildlife Watch Group – 14 or 15 children with volunteer leaders enjoying themselves in the woodland. They were totally absorbed in what they were doing, and you could see the children working out how to play as creatively and safely as possible. They were also taught how to use certain tools and were allowed to saw logs and boil a kettle on a small fire, assessing risks and taking responsibility for themselves and each other.

The opportunity to enjoy, play safely in, and learn to understand our natural environment is enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child – to which the UK is one of around 90 signatories. Yet in the UK, and particularly in Scotland, most of our children are still a long way from enjoying and fully benefiting from this convention.

Robin Harper with the Newcastleton Wildlife Watch Group © Donna Mathieson

Do we have our priorities right?

Free play in a healthy natural environment is every child's right, and yet we seem to remove access to this in our cities and housing estates. For too many children, sterile swards of grass studded with 'No Ball Games' signs are the closest to a free play area available. 

Our streets have been built largely for drivers. Pedestrians and cyclists have been somewhat designed out of the landscape. The proportion of children walking to school has dropped from 86% in 1971 to around 50% today. Many of the outdoor education centres that we had all over Scotland in the 1970s have been closed or given over to the business community for staff bonding experiences.

For every acre of land dedicated to play for children, 100 acres are given over to golf.

Most concerning of all are the statistics for self-harm among young people. In Scotland, the number of under-18's admitted to hospital each year for self-harming has almost doubled in the last five years. Many more suffer from depression and stresses that no child should have to deal with. 

Over-testing, an overcrowded curriculum, and lack of access to open air free play and activity are held chiefly to blame.

What could the future hold?

A firm understanding and appreciation of our natural environment can't just be taught in the classroom, it must also be learnt by experience. We really must give all our young people outdoor learning experiences on a regular basis.

My vision is for a country where outdoor education and learning is embedded in the education experience of every child, from pre-school to leaving age. If we use the Norwegian model, it could even become the law that all primary children should spend at least 20% of their time outside the classroom.

What could be simpler, or more obvious, or have so many social, educational, developmental, therapeutic and – yes – spiritual benefits?

The Curriculum for Excellence is a poor thing without an absolute commitment to outdoor experiential learning, and the figures for self-harm among children support this assessment. The Scottish Wildlife Trust supports a wild life. One essential element of this support has to be the encouragement of a population educated to empathise with our wild environments, and to become passionate about their protection.

Let us start with our youngest people, who stand to gain the most from such a strategy, and will themselves become more likely in the future to understand, support and enhance our natural environment. Let us help them to become stewards of our natural world.

Let us know your thoughts by emailing thefuture@scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk or Tweet@ScotWildlife using #50fortheFuture.

 Robin Harper is the Chairman of the Scottish Wildlife Trust. Before becoming the sole representative of the Green Party in the Scottish Parliament in 1999, Robin was a teacher in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Kenya. 

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In this week's 50 for the Future article, Robin Harper explains why putting environmental education at the heart of the curriculum is of such importance.

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