Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Nature news

Not this Nature
No, when I refer to Nature I don't mean that estimable scientific journal - this is the real thing. According to a report by a charity only '21% of children aged 8-12 are "connected to nature".' This study has to be one of the worst ever made of this sort of subject, so much so that I would suggest it has the potential to get some of its findings totally back to front (though this doesn't prevent the BBC reporting it with a totally straight face).

I have two big issues with this study. One is sample selection, the other is criteria.

But first let's see what the shocking headline results were. That 21% value was based on having 'realistic and achievable' connection with wildlife and the natural world. Apparently 27% of girls were at or above this target, but only 16% of boys. There were also regional variations. Wales did worst, while London was best in England. Urban children had a slightly higher connection than those living in rural areas. Immediately that rings some alarm bells. I have lived both in towns and in a country village, and I can tell you for certain that the country village children had a much more immediate connection with nature - so what's going on?

Okay, first sample selection. We are given no information how the main sample was made up. The only information on selection given is that that 'realistic and achievable' target was based on the average scores of children visiting RSPB sites or who are junior members of the RSPB. But if that example of selection is anything to go by for the whole, there is an issue. Because children visiting RSPB sites etc. are a very particular subset, with a very particular approach to nature that would be very different, I suspect to a much more connected farmer's son who enjoy shooting a few pigeons for fun. Their selection of the control sample is likely to be hugely biassed towards middle class urban tree huggers.

The other problem I have is the definition of a natural connection, which apparently included:


  • Empathy for creatures
  • Having a sense of oneness with nature
  • Having a sense of responsibility for the environment
  • Enjoyment of nature
I really struggle with some of these. 'Having a oneness with nature'? Pass the sick bag. Anyone who thinks they 'have a oneness with nature' hasn't a clue about the natural world which has just as much unpleasantness as it has fluffy bunniness. (Those bunnies probably have myxomatosis, after all.) Let me suggest some alternative criteria that might come up with a different urban/rural split:
  • Walks to school through a field
  • Has seen an animal die
  • Understands the importance of pest control
  • Knows the impact of the seasons
  • etc.
It's so arbitrary. 

Don't get me wrong, I do think not enough children are really exposed to nature. When I was six my mother was doing teacher training to be a biology teacher and we used to spend our weekends searching for pond life and tracking down wild rabbits. It was a great introduction to the natural world. I also had a friend who had a sheep farm (old fashioned enough not to have running hot water) and saw the raw side of nature that way. For that matter, we played out in nature every day, largely unsupervised by adults, a great way to learn. Far too many of today's youngsters spend too long in front of the TV and games console - or playing team games in artificial environments - or indulging in other urban pastimes. But I think visiting RSPB sanctuaries and establishing a 'sense of oneness with nature' is not what it's about and won't generate the next generation of naturalists and nature lovers.

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