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News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Smiling at Earthworms

By Dean W Veall, on 10 October 2013

Annelid encounter

Annelid encounter

Look at that face. In that smile there is excitement and thrill of my nephew handling an earthworm for the first time and every time I see that shot it brings a smile to my face. Because of that encounter with an annelid he may one day become a scientist and change the way we think of the world, or he may not (he currently aspires to be a builder, a postman and hot favourite is Mike the Knight). What is evidently clear from that one photo is a genuine connection with the natural world, a connection that will lead to, among other things I would hope, a love and an appreciation of nature that will stay with him for life.

According to a report compiled by naturalist Stephen Moss for the National Trust, Natural Childhood (2012 children and young people spend 2.5 hours a day watching television, 7.5 hours a day in front of a screen for 11-15 year olds and 20 hours a week online. That description of how children and young people spend their time today accurately describes how I spend my grown-up time but was not a characteristic of my youth. How I wiled away many a Summer holiday in Deri (tidiest village of the year 1990) damming up a stream to create a duck pond and discovering a vast array of invertebrate life as my cousin and I waited, in vain, for the flocks of ducks to arrive. I loved being outdoors. But through that sepia toned nostalgia it’s probably fair to say I was no Just William and if given the choice would have preferred to spend my Saturdays watching Live and Kicking, Ghostbusters or Saved by the Bell. So who am I to damn the youth of today for exploring the media available to them? But the consequences of a sedentary life on the young are clear for Moss, 17 per cent of boys are classed as obese and one  in 10 children under 15 have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder. So is this worrying increase in the mental and physical health of our young because technology has lured our children indoors from the parks and woods, ultimately disconnecting them from the natural world and all the benefits of being in nature has to offer, or are there other pressures at work?

But it is ever so easy to put the blame for children and young people’s disconnect from nature at the door of technology so next Friday we will also be discussing how technology is affording opportunities for them to forge new connections with nature. Television for me was a way I connected with the natural world beyond my little patch of Wales, travelling all around the world being exposed to the immense diversity of life on the planet, through the 28 inch box in the corner of the room. It was something the generation before me was never able to do. And today children and young people can download apps that connect them to camera traps in Africa and are asked to identify the animal that was photographed.

Just last week an exciting network of organisations such as the National Trust and the RSPB, came together to form the Wild Network. Publishing an 11 point manifesto, it is aiming to tempt children away from their screens and back out into the wild. At a Grant Museum event next Friday, we are asking the question “what has technology ever done for nature?”. One of the topics that will be discussed is how the proliferation of technology in the lives of children and young people is potentially a contributing factor to what has been coined “nature deficit disorder”.

Join us next week as we discuss these complexities and much more in our panel discussion “what has technology ever done for nature?” at 6.30pm on Friday 18th October in the Old Refectory in the Main Wilkins Building at UCL. In the meantime, go climb a tree, remind yourself how it feels.

Dean Veall is the Learning and Access Officer at the Grant Museum of Zoology

2 Responses to “Smiling at Earthworms”

  • 1
    Celine wrote on 10 October 2013:

    Excellent post Dean. We just joined the RSPB and promised to go on a country walk every weekend this month, though it’s kind of nuts that that’s seen as a Big Deal by some in terms of dragging kids away from the cosy indoors.

  • 2
    Mark Carnall wrote on 10 October 2013:

    Thanks Dean, this comes up every now and then in education or government policy. What slightly concerns me is that it’s often perceived to be a really bad thing for children to spend a lot of screen time and little time doing other things yet, for better or worse, this kind of training sets you up nicely for a lot of work environments.

    Why is technology and screen time so bad for young people but so accepted as the norm for adults? I’d like their to be less of a focus on young people.

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