Most efforts to introduce children to the world of nature are counterproductive, because they re-inforce the idea that human beings are somehow separate from nature, and not part of it. Once acquired, this idea tends to stick with people for the rest of their lives, and can make them behave in quite peculiar and irrational ways.
In order to avoid simply being a spectator, children need to have a certain degree of involvment with nature when they are outdoors for it to become a truly positive experience. A short burst of being outdoors can be counterproductive – if children are taken to a place with which they are not familiar, and if it is a little too hot, or a little too cold, or if it is raining, and if they do not really have anything to do, and then they go back home to a house full of modern comforts, then the idea that there is nature on the one hand, and human beings on the other is re-enforced.
It has taken a long time to get to the current level of detachment from the natural world, and being able to provide a child with a genuine experience of being part of nature is not as simple as one may imagine. It requires a different approach from the people in a child’s life, a different sort of outdoors, and a way of behaving that has largely fallen out of the collective memory.
The idea of a group of children under the control of one or two adults does not work well in an outdoor setting. A ratio of one child to one adult, or one younger child to one older child, works better; it allows the older person to be engaged in a useful activity at the same time as taking an interest in the younger person. When you have a larger number of children per adult, the adult has to give all their attention to the children, making the whole group detached from where they are – observing nature, or playing in it, but not part of it.
Often when children are taken outdoors, it is into spaces that have been designed for them specifically, or as places for general recreation: playgrounds, parks, playing fields, footpaths, etc. These spaces are often delineated by fixed boundaries such as walls and fences to prevent children from running off into the road, or onto neighbouring properties, vegetation is generally close-cropped and manicured, and everything is designed to be as safe as possible. Well meaning though this may be, it gives children the idea that the wider outdoors, beyond the fence, is full of danger, and not somewhere where they can feel at home.
The most important issue of all, however, is whether or not you are working in co-operation with nature or waging a battle against it, trying to force nature to conform to your wishes. If the latter is the case, even if you manage to interest a young person in the work being done, all that is achieved is to reinforce the idea that nature is something alien to themselves which needs to be fought against.
If, on the other hand, some simple needs are being supplied direct from nature, without resort being made to motorised tools, fertilisers, or chemicals, then it becomes relatively easy to include children in what you are doing, and for them to start to feel that they have a place in the natural world. In Europe and in other parts of the world with a long history of agriculture, there is a long tradition of people having maintained a sustainable lifestyle, in harmony with nature, whilst still taking a very active role in shaping the environment to suit their own needs. In such areas, the obvious starting point for re-engagement with nature has to be some form of gardening and agricultural activity using non-industrial techniques.
The flora and fauna in areas that have been inhabited by human beings for any period of time, depend upon human beings continuing to play their traditional roles in the countryside in order for their own ecological niches to be maintained. This applies to wild flowers, insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, mushrooms, and the whole range of life that we consider to be native to a particular area. Every traditional activity, from walking along a particular path every day to coppicing a row of trees every few years, helps to create an ecological niche to which one or more particular plant or animal is adapted. The more of these traditional activities that you do, the more of these niches you re-create, and the greater the diversity of wildlife that can return to your piece of land. This diversity allows more creatures to become established, and, gradually, something resembling a complete self-sustaining ecosystem evolves, with a human being not detached from it, but playing a vital role at its heart. Working in nature in this way gives children a chance to understand their own place in the local ecosystem, providing a sound foundation upon which to build the rest of their education.