Our education lead and senior ecologist, Shona McCombie talks to the Western Morning News about the importance of reconnecting to the natural world, particularly for young people.

Human disconnect from nature was perhaps an inevitable consequence given the trajectory of the contemporary modern world and the room we have made in our lives to accommodate our consumption of, admittedly often necessary and beneficial, technologies.

Commonly referred to as an ‘extinction of experience’ growing concerns of a diminished ‘real’ experience of nature for children now exist in societies throughout the world.

It isn’t just the physical imposition of the urban environment where children are affected by limited access to nature, children in rural populations are similarly affected and constricted by such things as the indoor educational settings and the focus on the written word.

‘Hands-on’ experiences in nature are vital for children’s social, emotional, cognitive and moral development.

This is something we are passionate about at Westcountry Rivers Trust (WRT) and we strive to provide opportunities for young people (and the not-so-young) to have immersive experiences in the wonderful natural river environments of the south west.

Westcountry Rivers Trust encourages experiential environmental education that allows sensory exploration of nature at a young age in order to enable people to develop a deeper understanding of the water environment.

The greater our connection with the natural world, the more likely we are to become guardians of it and as its biggest threat, it is vital that the human race comes on board.

As we develop our connectedness to nature, we also gain a deeper understanding of the importance of rivers and their place within our landscapes. We can see how everything is connected and that our impacts, however small or localised, will have a ripple effect.

This is why we aim to increase awareness of our incredible river environments and make them experientially accessible as we recognise this as an essential part of current and future conservation.

But it isn’t only for the environment that we prioritise our educational outreach at WRT; it is just as beneficial for the human participants.

It could be argued that it has never been more important to look after our mental health and well-being. Immersing ourselves in nature, connecting with our rivers, inadvertently getting to know the animals and plants that depend upon them, beginning to understand the natural cycles and processes aids our mental health, whether this is intentional or a pleasant by-product of a visit to your local stream.

There is plenty of research out there to support the benefits of how time outside in nature is positive for both physical and mental health. Whether it be reducing risks of childhood obesity, improving self-esteem or increasing our well-being.

There is nothing quite like carrying out your own bit of research though and getting out there and seeing how it makes you feel; these are the experiments that you will remember.

I encourage people to take some time for themselves and experience the wonder of what surrounds us. If you prefer company, then WRT can help you explore the magic of the rivers around us or to go solo and find your own special places out there. 

There is nothing that pleases me more than seeing children come alive when they engage with nature. From realising their wellies have holes in them (when it’s too late!) to catching their first ever caddisfly nymph to understanding the importance of our rivers and how they can make a difference to the health and future of them.

My personal observation is each child takes away their own memories and it is those which will propel them to want to know and do more.

An example of this in action in an urban setting can be seen through our Somerset SPONGE* project. We have worked with schools in Taunton to create sustainable drainage systems, in other words, sensory rain gardens, to interest the children in engineering, the water cycle and nature. These solutions on the school sites provide a fabulous way of making our urban spaces more resilient to flooding, encouraging wildlife, nurturing a sense of wellbeing, and providing an ongoing teaching resource.

I believe that the behaviours and actions of individuals of any age can have significant positive impacts. That’s why we deliver environmental education at WRT that aims to inspire and empower people to make informed decisions for the subsequent benefit of the environment.

* Somerset SPONGE is part of SPONGE 2020, a European project funded through the ERDF, and is delivered by Westcountry Rivers Trust and Somerset County Council. It also receives additional funding and support from other partners.

Visit: http://somerset-sponge.org/ for more info.