The world needs young nature geeks

They say that whatever issue you have with a toddler, you can multiply by ten for the teenager. Whilst inspiring tiny children about the great outdoors has its challenges, they are nothing compared to trying to keep young people involved with and excited about nature as they hit the often rocky, hormonal years of teenagedom.

I know from personal experience that even the most rural, idyllic childhood doesn’t prevent a rapid descent into nightclubbing and alcohol – who has time for nature then? My children are a while off that, but I wonder how I will keep them connected to our natural world.

Wonderful campaigns such as the Wildlife Trust’s ‘Every Child Wild’ and the work done by The Wild Network help the parents of younger children to embrace nature. Whilst there is no deliberate exclusion of teenagers from these projects (and much remains highly relevant), there is a focus on reaching out to younger children. To then lose that connection in the fug of the teenage years seems such a tragedy.

Time in nature is vital for everyone’s health and well-being and in the turbulent, exam-packed teenage years, stress relief and green exercise are just what the doctor ordered. Despite all the medical evidence, society still thinks it is more normal for a teenager to be holed up in a darkened room on social media than roaming the countryside with a pair of binoculars.

A more worrying aspect is the bullying that young people can experience if they are into nature. Being called a geek, nerd or twitcher can be the least of it. In a world that values material consumption and the quick thrill of the digital, choosing to spend time, often on your own or with the older generation, can mark you out as an odd ball.

A Focus on Nature is a youth nature organisation aiming to address this. It offers a community for young people who love nature, as well as looking at the wider issue of disconnection of teens from our natural world. The website is full of stories of young conservationists getting out there and not just connecting with nature, but taking real action.

Wildlife charities do offer teenage options for involvement. The RSPB’s Phoenix membership provides Wingbeat, the only environmental magazine written by teenagers for teenagers, and opportunities to become part of and blog on the Phoenix forum. For those interested in volunteering or work experience, most conservation charities can give exciting and varied opportunities that could lead to a career in conservation.

With social media, there is a platform ready and waiting for our tech savvy teens. We would all benefit from more young voices to shock us oldies out of our comfortable complacency and to make caring about our planet the norm, not the geeky exception.

Teenagers need nature and green spaces in their life. It will bring them fun, stress-relief, new friends and turn them into true custodians of our world.

It’s been a while (ahem) since I was a teenager and I don’t yet have my own, so I’m very interested in your thoughts and experiences on this important issue.

 

First published in the EDP and EADT.

 

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Walking the walk – are you walking to school?

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October is ‘International Dodge Speeding Car on Narrow Lane’ and ‘Get Rained on While Wearing Grey Trousers Month’. Luckily, at the last minute the organisers pulled in a new marketing team and decided on the catchier name of International Walk to School Month.

Living close enough to school to walk there with your children is a fantastic opportunity. Even if you live too far, you can park safely ten minutes from the gate and make regular exercise part of your daily routine – benefiting both you and your children.

Walking also reduces the hideous congestion of vehicles that develops around school gates. This haphazard parking can leave residents feeling like they live in a badly regulated car park and children are at risk as they weave their way through the traffic.

Environmentally, walking is a no-brainer. Reducing the number of people on the school car run slashes carbon emissions and reduces air pollution. Indeed, it is the short car journeys when the engine is cold and inefficient, that create most damage on a mile for mile basis. You’ll save money too – did you know that driving the average school run for a year costs over £400?

However, the reality is that less than half of all primary school children walk to school. The reasons include the weather, a shortage of time, having children at separate schools and the stress of walking with younger siblings in tow.

Speeding traffic in villages and outside schools is also a major concern. In my village, parents have worked with the Parish Council to reduce the speed limit outside the school and create a white line demarked space for walking within on a bendy country lane with high banks each side. It’s still not perfect though.

Even where there are pavements, cars go past so fast that your heart is in your mouth every few moments when your child runs to meet a friend or your learner cyclists wobbles ahead of you. Children are not automatons that stick firmly to the centre of the pavement, despite you shrieking at them. They scamper and frolic as well they should. The traffic around them makes no concession to this. It can feel like there is zero room for error before your beloved child becomes a statistic.

I have to keep telling myself that although there is a small risk walking to school, the risk of not doing so is even higher. Overweight, unhealthy children, streets that are out-of-bounds and a trashed environment are not a future we should be willing to accept.

We need to reclaim the streets this month and be as noisy as a troop of seven year olds who have eaten too many Haribos. Speak up and ask your school how it is getting involved in Walk to School Month. Lobby your council about 20 mph zones and traffic calming measures. But above all, get out there with your hi-vis jackets on and walk to school.

Find out more about the Walk to School campaign here.

Meaty matters

ImageLadies and Gentleman, please step away from the tongs and novelty aprons, the barbeque season is now officially closed. We’ve had a fabulous BBQ summer, but it has been virtually impossible to accept a social invite without encountering chargrilled sausages and cremated burgers.

Now is a great time to reduce your meat intake before rich winter foods are on the menu. Thanks to the McCartneys, the trendy way to do this is with Meat Free Mondays.

A meat free day is nothing new. Historically, it was often followed for religious reasons, such as a Friday fast, or because of rationing in times of shortages. Today, the aims are different; to improve human health and the environment.

So how would going veggie for one day a week help you and the planet? UN’s top climate scientist Rajendra Pachauri explains that, “People should consider eating less meat as a way of combating global warming.” Indeed, UN figures suggest that meat production puts more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than transport.

As is so often the case, what is good for the environment is often beneficial for us too. Many of the world’s leading health organisations now encourage a reduction in the amount of meat people consume. It could help you avoid cancer, heart disease or a stroke. According to a study carried out by Oxford University, if we ate red meat no more than three times a week it would save the NHS £1.2 billion each year.

Meat Free Mondays have other benefits too. You are likely to reduce your weekly food bill, lose weight and escape a food rut with the discovery of yummy new recipes.

However, I wonder if Meat Free Mondays aren’t a bit like smoking heavily most of the week but saying ‘its ok I never light up on a Tuesday’? Surely if it is so important we should commit to quit our carnivorous habit 24/7?

Not in my book. I was a vegetarian for many years, but now I’m not. This is largely for moral reasons (although my Mum’s Sunday Roast lured me back too!). It is because I am a passionate advocate for British farmers and want to support the best of them by spending my money on ethically produced meat. I also know that livestock is important to our countryside and can even help maintain habitats for rare wildlife – a landscape without sheep and cows would be an empty place indeed.

Meat Free Mondays is a similar concept to the wildly popular 5:2 diet (two days of fasting, five of eating normally). Having a set time when you eat more mindfully can impact your habits across the whole week, without the normal fatigue and failure that sets in with more radical regimes. How many wannabe vegetarians have lapsed on week two, when the smell of a bacon butty cuts through the fog of a hangover and becomes absolutely essential?

In my family, we’ll be embracing several meat free days a week. But even better, what about Seasonal Sundays – a day where everything you eat is seasonal and locally sourced? So long as no one suggests Cake Free Wednesdays, I’ll be there.

First published in the EDP and EADT on 20th September 2013