Climate change is the burning issue of the moment – and rightly so. The impact of human activity on the planet is leading to disastrous consequences for all life forms, including our own. Unfortunately, it is our children and their children who are going to suffer the worst of these effects and if we want to reverse the situation, then we urgently need children to learn about what the causes are and how they can bring around change.
That learning starts in school and one of the best places for it to happen is in the playground. Playing outdoors is vital if children are to start understanding the environment and how to take care of it. Outdoor play encourages children to develop a love and an appreciation of nature, something they seldom get the chance to in today’s screen-obsessed world.
Climate change is already having a devastating impact on young lives. Respiratory infections, due to polluted air and water, are estimated to take the lives of two million under-fives each year. The effects upon weather mean that we are seeing more storms and flooding in some areas and worsening droughts in others. These cause large scale devastation, sometimes with hundreds of thousands of people being made homeless and lacking basic essentials like food, water or shelter, which in turn lead to famine, disease and long-term poverty.
In order to improve the climate, we need to make drastic changes. Although the UK may have committed to being carbon neutral by 2050, this will have no significant impact if the rest of the world doesn’t follow suit. The key to success lies in changing attitudes to climate change and here, society has a critical role to play by exposing children to the wonders of being outside.
Unfortunately, there’s plenty of research to show that this is not the case. When away from school, children are increasingly confined indoors and don’t get the opportunity to enjoy unstructured play. There are many reasons for this: fear over the child’s safety, parents too busy working, too much homework, not enough local places to play, the attraction of the internet. While the causes are many, the result is that children begin to see the outdoor world as alien. Unlike their parents did, they don’t go out to play. They don’t climb trees, throw sticks, collect conkers, roll down hills, explore woods and streams or do anything much that links them to nature. The fear is that this lack of connection with the outdoors will make them even less environmentally friendly than the generations that have gone before.
The onus, therefore, is on schools to make up for what society is failing to provide. Thankfully, there is a great deal that schools can do, on a daily basis, to get children learning and playing outdoors.
To foster the sheer enjoyment of being outside, break and lunchtimes are best left for unstructured play and there are some fantastic pieces of outdoor playground equipment that can be used to encourage involvement. From sports and games markings to climbing frames and obstacle courses, these are great for encouraging children to have fun in the open air.
It’s not just during breaktimes, however, when the playground can play a part. Many schools are now developing their own outdoor classrooms and there is a wide range of outdoor resources available for all curriculum areas. Indeed, the outdoor learning space has a lot to offer, especially when doing active lessons or work that requires observation of the natural world, such as art, geography and science.
In addition, there has been a big increase in the number of schools providing access to nature areas. More schools are developing on-site ‘forest school’ environments, often using pre-existing grassed or garden areas of the premises. These are then added to with shrubs and trees, trellises, planters, water features, bug houses and bird feeders to give children more experience of the local flora and fauna. Nature areas are extremely popular with children who are not only fascinated with the plants and creatures but who find them peaceful havens in which to get some much-needed time out during the busy school day.
Some schools have begun to start other climate-friendly activities. One which is very popular is the ‘Walk to School Day’, which aims to get children more active and reduce pollution outside the school gates. Run once a week, these often include walking chains where children and parents will pick up classmates on-route so that no-one is left walking alone. Just imagine how much pollution could be cut If every school did this?
Taking part in such initiatives is useful in getting children and their parents to think about the environment and how they can make a positive impact. In doing so, you encourage them to develop a more caring attitude and take ownership of their actions.
The future of the planet lies in the hands of today’s youngsters. If we are to prevent climate change having a catastrophic impact, not only do we need to teach them about how to make the world a better place, we also need to foster the desire to care for it. You can’t do this without giving them access to the outdoors. Only by being outdoors will they develop a sense of awe and wonder at nature. As a school, you have the opportunity to make this happen.