Let them out

How do you get people interested in preserving the environment if they have no contact with the environment at all?

This is a particularly painful question when you work in a large city like Marseilles. Not that there is no biodiversity in large city; just like everywhere else, plants grow in the cracks of the pavements, gulls and pigeons and sparrows feast in the dustbins and in the remnants of sandwitches on the ground (and sometimes in the pizza slices exposed under the counters of bakeries–I love sparrows, but I won’t eat in that particular bakery again, thank you), the sea is a stone’s throw away. Still, all of this goes unnoticed. When I ask my students to think about their relationship with nature, all they come up with is the catechism they’ve learned in school: we should not litter, we should use public transports instead of cars, avoid pollution, ‘respect nature’ (as if that phrase had any meaning by itself…). A few of them had noticed that weeds did grow between the cracks in the concrete. The others had not.

I hear my colleagues say lots of things about what students should learn in school–most of the time, it boils down to ‘the exact things they learn now, but more and better, because students are getting more ignorant by the week and it’s a disgrace’. I’m not so certain about that. First, if students had really been getting more ignorant and entitled for as long as teachers have been complaining, then it’s a wonder some of them still manage to write their own name with the proper spelling. I might be wrong about that; I haven’t been a teacher for very long, after all. But even if I am, it’s still not clear to me why it’s so essential for students to learn what they currently learn in school. There are so many essential things that are left out, and contact with nature is one of them. And I’m not talking about catechism. I’m talking about actual, unhurried, carefree contact with nature.

We should take out students outside all the time. We should show them the plants that survive among petrol fumes and dustbins. We should teach them to observe the sparrows and gulls, how they feed, where they nest. And then we should take them outside the city, where there are rosemary bushes and shrub oaks and white stones on the ground instead of concrete. We should let them sit on the ground and feel the pine needles through their clothes, bury their feet in the sand, see how the sea anemones open and close with the tides. We should give them time to enjoy it, to taste it, learn it, love it. Take their smartphones away. Let them forget about efficiency for a moment. Let them wonder by themselves about the shapes of the leaves and the smells of the wood. Let them make nature a part of themselves, instead of an abstract concept they have to ‘protect’ even if they can’t understand how or why.

Some of my colleagues will go on strike next Tuesday against the newest reforms. I’ve decided I’m not going to pay attention to any reform until someone thinks to mention that access to nature should not be a privilege, and that all children should be entitled to it, and if their personal circumstances can’t provide that, then it’s school’s job to take them outside. When someone finally suggests that school should help children, not learn more, but go out more, then I will start listening again.

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