Connecting Kids – An Educator’s Perspective

Engaging young people more with wildflowers and our splendid Western Australian ecology may appear to be something of a challenge in recent times. Perhaps for many reasons, an interest in botany seems to have fallen out of favour with young people. Much research suggests that young people are finding less relevance in the natural environment as a part of their lives. The life of the modern child is instead significantly centred upon a more digital world, interconnected with multimedia applications, a reality largely more virtual than organic. This is a sad reality for those of us interested in reaching out to a younger generation with our passion for the native plants that enrich our lives.

We may ask ourselves, what is the value of encouraging young people to take a greater interest in wildflowers, or indeed our natural environment? How do young people themselves benefit from being able to know the names and ecological roles of what is found in the bushland areas around them? Thankfully and importantly, there are many such benefits in young people exploring the world outside of their suburban fences and encouraging them outside may not be as difficult a task as it may first appear. While there are clearly ecological implications for this regarding conservation and environmental initiatives (Pilgrim, Smith & Pretty 2007), there are also implications for students’ cognitive development (Kellert 2005) and physical heath (Dolan 2016, Louv 2006). Findings such as these have a particular poignancy in Australia and especially the Southwest, given the region’s unique biodiversity.

Sharing the wonders of our local environment with young people is best facilitated outdoors in the environments themselves and it is well understood that this style of outdoor, discovery-based learning is of great benefit to children. Learning has been shown to be enhanced by drawing upon a child’s natural curiosity towards an outdoor environment (Fleer & Hardy 2001, Malone & Tranter 2003). This hands-on, immersive style of learning is an excellent pedagogical tool that teaches an eco-literacy that may transfer into wider aspects of the students’ lives including creativity, literacy, critical thinking, problem solving and communication (Pascoe &Wyatt-Smith 2013).

But where do we start and how do we go about this? As Wildflower Society members our enthusiasm and understanding for our local botany is often the result of many years of research and discovery and we should consider that what may appear plain as day to us may be otherworldly to a young child. Often I ask a group of children ‘can anyone tell me the name of any plants?’ The question is commonly met with confused looks and desperate answers. ‘Tree? Bush? Christmas Tree? A Stick!’  Species in the animal kingdom appear slightly better understood of course but I am often amazed by how little botanic knowledge many local children possess. Perhaps the key to engaging young children in the 21st century lies in embracing 21st century technology itself. Bringing this somewhat foreign world of botany to a more familiar platform that engages children and makes the confusing more accessible.

Use of modern, portable information communication technologies such as tablets and mobile devices allow for some exciting new ways to engage students with their environment (Ward, Finley, Keil & Clay 2013). With user-friendly touchscreen technologies and the use of new microscopy tools, hidden worlds of nature can now become beautifully illuminated on the high resolution screens of portable devices in ways that were not possible before. Similarly, the advancements in digital photographic tools allow for another simple and fulfilling means for young people to interact first hand with the natural world which was unheard of until recently. Another very effective use of technology which engages young people with ecological or botanical focus is the use of online environmental mapping programs and applications. Increasingly, educational and scientific ‘citizen science’ initiatives are using Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to map precise locations of living organisms (such as Australian flora).

Using portable devices along with applications and websites students are increasingly able to interact first hand with their environment, actively searching out locations of known species and furthermore contributing to records of global biogeographical data (Martin et al. 2016). Given the tremendous popularity of recent augmented reality games such as Pokemon Go as well as studies which show students’ affinity for recalling biological nomenclature presented in such a way, one wonders at the potential of enriching education with applications linking real life species to interactive games for children (Balmford et al. 2002).

New technologies aside, engaging students with our local wildflowers and ecology should be a multi-faceted approach, embracing our natural environment from a range of angles. While a cultural perspective may celebrate the rich indigenous history associated with our plants, an artistic approach celebrates their vivid colours and textures. Rather than recite what may appear to a child a verbose lexicon of botanical nomenclature, we should invite poetry and role play to our educational experiences, fostering an intrinsic love of a child’s natural environment and their sense of place within it.

With greater focus upon the unique biodiversity of South Western Australia, educators in the region are beginning to understand how our local bushland areas may be used as educational spaces for young people. In time this will only serve to build a greater care and connection to the environments we value so dearly.

– Andrew Price, Education Subcommittee


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