What kind of school is needed in an overheated world?

In a rapidly urbanizing world, where youngsters are spending less and less time outdoors, the benefits of connecting children to nature are the subject of much research and are increasingly well documented.

Sylvain Wagnon, University of Montpellier

AdobeStock_288686186 ©Halfpoint - stock.adobe.com

Outdoor activity is not only beneficial to the health of the youngest children, but also to their overall well-being. Games and time spent in nature - observing, running, singing, listening and smelling - also foster a different relationship with oneself and the environment.

Nature experiences and child development

Even before considering the benefits of exposure to nature for the training of future citizens in the context of global warming, time spent outdoors promotes children's physical and mental health. A causal link has been established, for example, between time spent outdoors and the prevention of myopia.

In 2008, orthoptics professor Kathryn Rose evaluated the average time spent outdoors by a cohort of Australian children (an average of two hours), followed by Singaporean children (an average of just thirty minutes), in order to relate this exposure to natural sunlight to myopia, which was twice as high in Singaporean children.

In recent years, scientific research has also enabled us to link reduced access to natural spaces with allergic risk and predisposition toobesity.

Eight proven benefits of nature on learning

Research, notably by University of Illinois environmental science professor Ming Kuo, also highlights the benefits of proximity to nature for successful learning at school, and for the training of responsible future citizens committed to preserving our planet.

In a meta-analysis published in 2019, Ming Kuo and his colleagues have reviewed the various studies on the potentially positive roles of nature in child development.

They identified eight benefits: exposure to nature increases attention, self-discipline and interest, improves physical fitness, reduces stress, and provides a calmer environment conducive to greater cooperation and autonomy. These benefits, the study points out, were observed even when exposure was reduced.

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Published in 2016, research shows, for example, that students randomly assigned to classrooms overlooking vegetation perform better on concentration tests, and see their heart rate, as well as their state of stress, decrease.

School outside, an ancient story

As early as the emergence of industrial and urban society in the 19th century, educational reformers, notably those of the éducation nouvelle movement, had already highlighted the need to be in touch with nature.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Belgian pedagogue Ovide Decroly also asserted this with a striking formulation:

"Class is when it rains."

At the same time, the classe-promenade, proposed by Élise and Célestin Freinet, is an educational activity that takes students outside the classroom to explore nature, observe, collect data and experiment directly, thus integrating learning through concrete interactions with the environment. For example, during a class walk, students can study the different types of trees in a park, observe local wildlife and document their findings through drawings or descriptions.

Photo of a 1950s kindergarten in the Austrian Tyrol. The word kindergarten was originally coined by the German pedagogue Friedrich Fröbel (1782-1852), who promoted the importance of outdoor play and gardening in the education of young children. Wikimedia

A global dynamic

The benefits of an education that is closer to nature and more aware of climate issues have also been attracting the interest of leaders for several decades.

As early as 1975, Unesco's Belgrade Charter declared that a new type of education was needed in order to :

"To create a world population that is aware of and concerned about the environment and related problems, a population that has the knowledge, skills, mindset, motivation and sense of commitment to work individually and collectively to solve current problems and prevent new ones from arising.

Nearly fifty years later, in September 2022, the UN Summit on Transforming Education reaffirmed the crucial role of education in an era of climate disruption, proposing the establishment of a "Partnership for Green Education".

Seeking both to reform the framework of education (with "green schools, operating sustainably") and its ambition, with "green programs inserting climate education" into classrooms through appropriate teacher training, the stated aim of this partnership is to double the number of countries that include climate education in school curricula at pre-primary, primary and secondary levels.

Varying degrees of implementation

For the time being, however, the situation remains highly uneven from one country to the next. Unesco has found that over half the school curricula in the world's countries make no reference to climate change, and only 19% mention biodiversity.

In recent years, however, political choices have been made in line with Unesco's objectives. In 2019, Italy became the first country in the world to incorporate global warming into the core curriculum of its education system, with 33 hours of specific teaching.

Starting in 2020, Cambodia is following suit by making global warming and its study part of high school curricula, and developing a network of pilot schools involved in climate-resilient agriculture projects.

In 2021, the Argentinean parliament ratified a law requiring environmental education to be present throughout the school curriculum.

But such changes are not always sustainable. India, for example, has long been a pioneer, with the Supreme Court's decision to introduce environmental studies as a compulsory subject at all levels of the curriculum as early as 2004, but the country has just backtracked by removing the chapters of this subject devoted to global warming.

PISA assessments

Since 2006, PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) has been evaluating the environmental knowledge of children around the world. Report after report, the data collected confirms the discrepancies deplored by Unesco... And points to others.

Data collected in 2018 show that while 79% of children in the 38 OECD countries claim to be familiar with the subject of global warming, this figure rises to 90% in Hong Kong, and drops to 40% in Saudi Arabia.

The same year, PISA also asked whether students hoped to "do something to solve these global problems". 57% answered yes. Surprisingly, the report continues, this figure is not corollary to the knowledge acquired: in the two highest-performing OECD countries - Korea and Singapore - only 20% and 24% of students surveyed thought they could have an impact on climate disruption.

OECD data on young people and global warming
According to data gathered by the OECD, young people are concerned about climate change, but feel unable to make a difference. OECD PISA 2018

Age and gender dimensions

Within the same country, awareness of global warming and the desire to take action against this global evil can also vary significantly according to age and gender.

In Australia, for example, a team of researchers from the University of Sydney surveyed 1,000 urban schoolchildren aged 8 to 14, and found that while one in two children said they were "strongly connected to nature", and as such inclined to engage in biodiversity protection activities, this figure dropped to one in five as they reached adolescence.

Another discrepancy pointed out by the researchers is that girls show more empathy towards wildlife and have, on average, established closer emotional bonds with flora than boys.

Eco-delegates in French middle and high schools

In France, Article 5 of the August 2021 "climate and resilience" law enshrines the fundamental role of sustainable development education for all, from primary school through to high school. This ambition is also present at European level: since 2022, a new framework of competencies, GreenComp, has been in place to propose a new approach that "encompasses and transcends the simple preservation of the environment by re-examining the place of human beings and the meaning to be given to the development of our societies".

During Emmanuel Macron's first five-year term in office, French middle and high schools saw the arrival in every classroom of a student eco-delegate, tasked with raising awareness of climate issues. With the new curricula for 2019, the terms "global warming (or climate change)" have also been added to the science and Earth sciences curricula for high school students.

At the time, several voices from the research community, including Valérie Masson-Delmotte, climatologist and Chair of IPCC Group 1, judged this development to be lacking in ambition.

Since then, a number of initiatives have been launched to strengthen the tools and resources needed to bring education up to date with climate issues.

In March 2023, the report by the French National Education Inspectorate - entitled "How can education and research systems be both transformed and transformative in the face of climate change?" - listed nine recommendations, stressing in particular the need to train teachers "in the impact of human activities on the environment, as well as knowledge of the international context", the introduction of "measurement of the environmental impact of establishments", the "reinforcement of scientific training" in primary schools, and the introduction of "educational projects linked to an environmental theme" with a "dedicated interdisciplinary slot".

In the same vein, on June 23, 2023, the French Ministry of Education set out 20 measures designed to give students a better understanding of the challenges of the ecological transition as part of their teaching.

What subjects are involved in environmental education?

On a global scale, the question of which disciplines should be involved in environmental education is increasingly being debated. Often confined to scientific subjects, some believe that the study of climate challenges should also appear in other subjects.

Amanda Power, a historian at Oxford University, proposes, as she pointed out in an article published on The Conversation UK in 2020, that history curricula be changed to enlighten students about the origins of the climate crisis:

"One of the main problems with public understanding of the current situation is that most of the information and interpretation comes from the sciences. Scientists can explain what is happening and make projections for the future. Knowing why human societies have made the choices that have brought us to where we are today is not part of their discipline. Yet the contemporary climate and environmental crises are the result of human activity."

Just as forcefully, Nigerian philosophy of education professor Bellarmine Nneji advocates integrating environmental ethics into school curricula, with a view to preparing students for climate issues from the earliest age. In an article published in 2022 on The Conversation Afrique, he emphasized:

"Children are curious and ask a lot of questions about what surrounds them. This is what the introduction of philosophy in primary and secondary schools could exploit. It would help shape children's reasoning and prepare them to take part in debates and policy-making."

In his view, teaching environmental ethics would enable younger generations to learn about their rights, first and foremost the fundamental right to inherit "a healthy and sustainable environment".

This article is part of a project involving The Conversation France and AFP audio. It received financial support from the European Journalism Centre, as part of the "Solutions Journalism Accelerator" program supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. AFP and The Conversation France retained their editorial independence at every stage of the project.

Sylvain Wagnon, Professor of Education, Faculty of Education, University of Montpellier

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.