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Schools need to help children connect with nature, says TV presenter Chris Packham

More needs to be done to connect children of all social backgrounds with nature, according to naturalist Chris Packham.

Speaking at The Lush Summit, the TV presenter said schools needed to provide a central role in making sure everyone had hands on experience to shape their view of nature.

“When I attend events for young people run by NGOs, the kids that turn up are all white middle class and their parents drive Volvos. You don’t get an ethnic mix and you don’t get much of a class mix. That’s not good enough.

“I was a working class kid and my dad had a Vauxhall Viva. I developed my interest in nature, and others would too, because I had free access to it. That’s why schools are important, because everyone goes to school. No matter who they are.”

GCSE in Natural History

Voicing his support for a petition calling for the introduction of a GCSE in Natural History, he said too many youngsters now have lack of contact with the natural world.

The petition was started by writer, radio producer and conservationist Mary Colwell, who is featured in a new interview with Lush podcast producer and naturalist Charlie Moores. It has attracted 10,718 signatures and says re-engagement with Britain's natural history has never been more urgent.

Young people need the skills to name, observe, monitor and record wildlife, said Mary. It is vital to understand the contribution nature has made to our lives physically, culturally, emotionally and scientifically, both in the past and today.

“People have learned or been bullied into seeing the countryside or the outside world as a dark, dirty and dangerous place,” said Chris Packham at a summit talk about his critically-acclaimed memoir, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, published in paperback in April.

“Kids go out and as soon as they touch something they are squirted with antiseptic hand lotion. What’s the message? The message is that’s dirty, it’s dangerous. It’s not, it’s a newt. No-one ever died from touching a newt,” said Packham.

High-vis jackets

“They’re wearing high-vis jackets, they’re not on a building site they’re walking through a woodland. This is giving another message to those kids saying it’s dangerous. This is a horror show.

“It’s so disappointing. It is an enormous repository of riches, which can be accessed by young people and it can ignite a spark which can last a lifetime. But they’re denied that because of paranoia and laziness and this preoccupation with security and safety.”

In Poole a community gardens project is giving youngsters of all social backgrounds the opportunity to enjoy nature. In the spring sunshine a group of children are busy sowing seeds. In one corner is a willow dome that the youngsters use as a playhouse. In another is a hedgehog home that they have helped to build.

There is a section planted with herbs which are labelled and free for passersby to pick, alongside some fruit bushes. This year the youngsters are also growing flowers that attract bees.

Most of the children here today live in nearby flats. The community garden at the centre of this council housing estate has given them a way of connecting both with nature and their neighbours.

Planting seeds

Several of the mums who are working at the garden with their children say they found out about it from their local primary school or playgroup. Pupils make class visits with their teachers to help plant seeds and learn about how they grow.

Samantha Prewett and her children have been involved with the Poole Town Community Garden since it first started. “Living in a flat, as a family we had no gardening experience before, and we have loved learning how to grow our own vegetables at the garden.”

Her children have been a lot more adventurous with trying the veg and fruit that they have grown and the family now plants some pots on their balcony at home each spring, she explained.

“It’s not just the gardening skills that we have learnt from coming here for the past four years, it has given us all a lot more confidence and a real sense of community. Everyone is so friendly and it’s lovely to be able to drop in whenever we can after school and for the many events that they do every year.

“The best thing for me is planting the crops every year and helping to grow them and taking them home on the harvest day. It’s something really special to be able to grow your own food, and it’s something that we definitely wouldn't have been able to do without the community garden."

Bringing the community together

Project secretary Tony Rowlandson became involved after his neighbour suggested he  visited. He enjoys gardening and also the good company on offer at the weekly meet ups.

Holly Fitzgerald was first introduced through one of her daughter's playgroups. “As we don't have a garden I wanted her to know how vegetables and fruit were grown so she could identify where her food came from. It was great to be outdoors and it was very social at the same time.

“Becoming involved with the committee and then going on to be chairperson has provided me with invaluable experience, and I have regained some of the confidence I lost when I became a carer for my daughter and had to give up work. It's been a nice escape from the hospital visits and it has remained a sociable and fun project my daughter and I still enjoy together.”

The garden is one of several set up by Poole Housing Partnership(PHP) since 2012 with National Lottery Funding, to help communities set up local food growing projects on estates and in sheltered housing projects.

“Gradually, as the projects have evolved, they are being used as outdoor community spaces. It doesn’t have to be only about food, it’s more about bringing the community together in a way that suits them,” said PHP Community Engagement Co-ordinator Clare Sutton. This can include organising events and parties.

Food For a Change

An East European food event is being planned at the Poole garden this summer, with the idea of bringing people together from different backgrounds to share food and get to know eachother.

Vicky Ashley runs a social enterprise, Food for a Change, teaching cookery and gardening skills to people from many different backgrounds.  “I love working in all of the community gardens.  Spending time with people of all different ages and different backgrounds is great, and nature and growing are things which absolutely everyone can get involved in in different ways.  

“It’s especially lovely when I meet who kids have little idea about where veg comes from or of eating much of it, who then start trying and tasting things that are new to them because they have formed a connection with the whole process.  

“It’s amazing as well how much learning about life, each other, teamwork, the planet – everything really – you can pack into time in the community gardens.  Not to mention the fun of  a water fight on a hot day!"

Poole Town Community Garden
Poole Town Community Garden

“Kids go out and as soon as they touch something they are squirted with antiseptic hand lotion. What’s the message? The message is that’s dirty, it’s dangerous. It’s not, it’s a newt. No-one ever died from touching a newt.” Chris Packham.

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