Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

Sir David Attenborough Laments June 2, 2010

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I recently found this article about Sir David Attenborough, who I mentioned before in the post about the lyre bird, through the Children and Nature Network‘s twitter account.

Sir David Attenborough is an amazing naturalist/personal hero who has spent decades as an environmental history broadcaster, sharing the wonder of nature with people of all ages.  In the article, he describes his childhood “fossicking”–a word I’ve never heard before but greatly enjoy meaning “searching”–through the english countryside.  He feels sorry for children today because parents are afraid to let them go off exploring, and as a result people are becoming more and more disconnected from the environment.

He says, “Kids of ten or twelve are not encouraged to get on their bikes and go fossicking around the countryside where their mothers do not know where they are,” he said. “That was not the case for me. I was able to get on my bike and sit in the fields of Leicestershire watching animals. I learned a lot about natural history.”

I think he has a valid point, but I also think there is another solution. My brother and I spent a lot of time exploring within the relative safety of our backyard and a strip of woods behind our house. We also explored destinations farther from home, but with one difference–our parents were with us! This brings us to one of the biggest questions I personally have about environmental education–how do you inspire parents to take their kids outside??

It is something I’m working on, and I’d certainly love to hear any thoughts you readers have about it. The problem with Sir Attenborough’s idea is that it may be hard to convince parents that letting their kids wander off without knowing where they are is a good plan, whether or not he is right. The best solution, therefore, is to get more parents to go out exploring with their kids, the way mine did with me growing up.

I think one of the things people forget about kids is that they don’t need a big space in order to connect with nature in an important and long-lasting way. Maybe this is why parents don’t feel up to taking their kids out–they imagine it as a big ordeal, searching extensively for something to hold interest.  This does not have to be the case, if children are instructed to look for the small things living all around them! I posted some pictures of students’ finds from previous excursions before, and the students found even more on a second day out. For this day I had the students explore a small area. Not only that, but I had 5 different groups explore the same area throughout the day, and each group found new and different things that the students before them had missed.

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Here is a large slimey salamander the third class to come through found.

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And here is a giant grub of some kind that the last group found. They also found more of the large black, red, and yellow millipedes, worms, ants, salamanders, and toads that the previous post mentions.

There is plenty to find out there lurking under leaves, logs, or the first view inches of top soil, and you don’t need much space to find them!

Sir David Attenborough also brings up another point that is something I haven’t talked about yet on this blog, but struggle with a lot as an environmental educator. Attenborough dislikes the laws that prohibit children from collecting fossils and flowers, and feels that they should be relaxed to allow them to take common species. With kids the mantra is always, “take only pictures, leave only footprints.”  Obviously I don’t want kids to destroy habitat or hurt animals, but I have to say that I agree with David here. When I work with students I still stick by the ‘leave only footprints,’ rule, but the truth is that my childhood experiences with nature looked nothing like that! We loved animals, and thus didn’t want to hurt them, but we caught plenty of snakes, turtles, frogs, and insects, and picked plenty of flowers. The problem I have with telling kids not to do these things is that I am not sure I would feel the connection to and love for nature that I have today if not for these hands-on experiences. It is something I am still going back and forth on–I understand that you can’t tell large groups of kids that messing with nature is okay (which is why I currently don’t!), but I do think that having this as an unbendable unbreakable rule might be a mistake that we will regret in the future.

I wish more studies were being done on this so there was a more concrete way of knowing–what is the difference in connection to nature 30 years from now for a kid who looked at a toad from afar, versus one who scrambled after it through the underbrush, felt its rough skin, its heart beating, and its webbed feet pushing against their hands before releasing it back into the wild? Is there a difference? How important is it? Does one care more about the environment as an adult than the other?

Again, this is something that I’m still struggling with. For the record, I think that everything should be returned to the wild, but I am not sure that telling kids to only watch from a respectful distance is the best plan for instilling a love of nature in our children.  What are your thoughts, readers?

Finally, I just wanted to add this quote from the article about Sir David Attenborough:

“He urged people to go “on safari” in their backyard by using the techniques learned in nature programmes to watch wildlife.”   [emphasis added]

Thanks for the unofficial and accidental shout-out, Telegraph UK!

As I mentioned, I would really love to hear your thoughts on this. Leave a comment here or e-mail me at askbackyardsafari@gmail.com, and let me know what you think!

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2 Responses to “Sir David Attenborough Laments”

  1. […] posted pictures of amphibians many times before on this blog, which you can see here, here, here, here, here, and here. Frogs, toads, and salamanders are wonderful for people of all ages, but kids […]

  2. […] truthfully anything but–one of my favorite videos on YouTube, and narrated by our old friend Sir David Attenborough. In this video Capuchin monkeys are tested for their understanding of fairness and sharing. In the […]


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