Could playgrounds hold the key to protecting penguins?
(And the rest of the world’s biodiversity)
By Beth Storey-Jones
The idea of teaching our children/young adults to be ecologically conscious citizens can feel daunting. But this is important now more so than ever before. Children are typically known for their curiosity and fascination with the great outdoors. However, due to the increasing reliance on technology, natural interaction is at an all-time low. A study carried out by Mental Health Foundation showed that 95% of 11-19-year olds use social media with 79% of them using it daily. Those that used it on a regular basis expressed that it manipulated their mood and how they saw themselves . It is also widely understood that due to their physiology and metabolic systems, children are becoming increasingly more vulnerable to the environmental toxins pumped into our atmosphere every year [2,3]. With potential evidence of this being the unprecedented number of American children effected by asthma  and 1 in 500 UK children receiving a cancer diagnosis under the age of 15 . These are just a few examples of the extremely important reasons why environmental health and education should be incorporated into our global educational systems sooner rather than later.
The “Surplus Energy Theory”
In 1855, Herbert Spencer released his works, Principals of Psychology, in which he introduced us to the “surplus energy theory” which suggested that the purpose of play for children was predominantly to “burn off steam”. This has since been rejected by many developmental theorists; however, it has still shaped how outdoor access is utilised in mainstream education .
When we consider a generic school playground or park, it is often filled with manmade structures, such as climbing frames, slides, and swings. Flat concreted areas for easy maintenance  and compact enough for surveillance. All of which are understandable, however these lack any kind of opportunity for children to connect with their natural environment, which is usually just a fence hop away .
Image 1: A standard school playground. Some may also have climbing apparatus. They vary in size but are often not so large that they cannot be monitored. (Source: Tomas Tezanos B., Wikimedia Commons).
How to create this developmental interaction.
Aside from intensive urbanisation  children today are faced with other boundaries restricting them from this important developmental interaction, even while at home. These range from parents fearing their child’s safety, an example of this being “stranger danger” . Additionally, it has been suggested that there is increasing pressure on children to spend more time learning and participating in a structured routine to contend with the ever-competitive career ladder.
As this societal grip grows, children are losing the understanding that nature exists as soon as they step out of their front doors. Reality is being replaced by the virtual and they are turning their heads to media. They are being conditioned to believe that nature is primarily found in faraway exotic places which they’re unlikely to ever experience . This in turn severs any emotional connection and thus continues the exploitation of our natural areas due to lack of understanding and compassion .
Image 2: Children are becoming heavily reliant on technology, both in and outside of school. Technology is not a bad resource, but when abused or not moderated, it can have concerning lasting impacts. (Source: Hragaby, Wikimedia Commons).
So, what can be done to change this…
The simple first step could be to naturalise the play spaces that children utilise during break/lunch times at school. This may include some or all of the following:
- Exchanging tarmacked areas with native grass, wildflower and/or vegetable patches, trees and shrubbery. All of which would benefit our native animal populations.
- Introduction of different terrains and substrates such as sand, soils, and water which will also provide resources for many different species of animals
- Access to the changing seasons. This will allow children to experience different types of weather, sounds and natural light. As well as a range of textures, colours, and materials.
Image 3: RSPB Flatford is a fantastic example of how education and wildlife appreciation can go hand in hand. With a variety of learning opportunities and biodiverse greenspaces, including this wildlife friendly garden. (Source: RSPB Flatford)
Help children learn about the environment on their own.
Children need to be given the chance to interact with their natural environment on their own terms, through exploration and discovery. Teaching children about problems that greatly surpass their cognitive ability, such as climate change, overpopulation and deforestation to name a few, can result in anxiety and fear which often leads to dissociation – or in this particular case “biophobia” . The flaw in environmental education, especially for younger children, is that they’re being made to understand and learn how to fix these types of issues before they have even been able to create a positive association and connection to their natural surroundings. By allowing them this time to develop a more personal experience, the more likely it is that they will become proactive regarding the bigger issues when the time comes . Additionally, a growing selection of academic research suggests that there are more profound benefits when exposing children of all abilities to nature. Studies show that:
- Children living with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) concentrate better after interacting with nature .
- Wells (2003) suggests nature can help children cope better with adversity and stress.
- Exposure to a range of natural environments can reduce or in some cases eliminate violent or anti-social behaviour, as well as bullying, vandalism and even littering .
- Access to green areas from a young age helps develops a child’s sense of wonder, independence, confidence, and imagination. Which will also be beneficial throughout their lives .
But Beth, how does that in any way help penguins?!
Well, this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Children have an extraordinary ability to cause a ripple effect, their wonder and curiosity are often contagious, drawing in those around them to see and experience what they are. The simple task of naturalising play areas will not only provide many species with increased green spaces/corridors and resources that they so desperately need, but it will also allow each individual child to learn in their own unique way through exploration and experimentation, all while building their confidence, conscientiousness, and creativity. Their consideration for all life on Earth will develop instinctively and in turn will allow them to become our natural world’s biggest advocates, that natural world includes our penguin pals!
Image 4: Here we can see British Antarctic survey biologist Dr. Kate Barlow observing Macaroni Penguins on South Georgia Island. This sort of career may seem out of reach to a child but something as simple as creating greener spaces for them to ignite their appreciation for the environment around them will create a deep rooted connection that they may hold on to for life. (Source: Natural Environment Research Council, 2015).
Please follow this link and sign the petition to help naturalise play spaces within the U.K. http://chng.it/vqqGNgwP
Environmental education for children can make a huge impact on penguin conservation. Let us know what you think. And please help us to continue to provide you with penguin news articles by donating to Penguins International.
Read more about penguins in some of our other blogs:
Like our penguin blogs? Sign up for our newsletter to get them right in your inbox!
- Mental Health Foundation. (2018). What new statistics show about children’s mental health [Online]. Mental Health Foundation. Available from: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/blog/what-new-statistics-show-about-childrens-mental-health [Accessed 22nd September 2020].
- Crom, W. (1994). Pharmacokinetics in the child. Environmental Health Perspectives. 102 111–117.
- Pastor, M., Sadd, J., and Morello-Frosch, R. (2002). Who’s minding the kids? Pollution, public schools and environmental justice in Los Angeles. Social Science Quarterly. 83, 263–280.
- American Public Health Association. (2007). Movement to reconnect children & nature. [Online]. American Public Health Association. Available from: http://www.apha.org/publications/tnh/archives/2007/Oct07/Nation/KidsandNatureNation.htm. [Accessed 22nd Sept 2020].
- Children’s Cancer and Leukaemia Group. (2014). Children and Young People with Cancer: A Parent’s Guide. [Online]. Children’s Cancer and Leukaemia Group. Available from: http://www.cclg.org.uk [Accessed 22nd Sept 2020].
- Malone, K. and Tranter, P. (2003). Children’s Environmental Learning and the Use, Design and Management of Schoolgrounds. Youth and Environments. 13, 87-137.
- Moore, R. and Wong, H. (1997). Natural Learning: Rediscovering Nature’s Way of Teaching. California, MIG Communications.
- Shell, E. (1994). Kids Don’t Need Equipment, They Need Opportunity, Smithsonian Magazine. 25, 78-87.
- Chawla, Louise, (1994). Knowing and Caring for the Natural Environment. Children’s Environments. 11, 175-176.
- Pyla, (2002). Eden in a vacant lot: Special places, species and kids in community of life. Children and nature: Psychological, sociocultural and evolutionary investigations. 279–305.
- Chipeniuk, R. (1995). Childhood foraging as a means of acquiring competent human cognition about biodiversity, Environment and Behavior. 27, 490-512.
- Schultz, W., Shriver, C., Tabanico, J. and Khazian, A. (2004) Implicit connections with nature. Journal of Environmental Psychology. 24, 31-42.
- Kellert, S. (2002). Experiencing Nature: Affective, Cognitive, and Evaluative Development. Children and Nature: Psychological, Sociocultural, and Evolutionary Investigations. Cambridge, The MIT Press.
- Harvey, M. (1989). The Relationship between Children’s Experiences with Vegetation on Schoolgrounds. Journal of Environmental Education21, 9-18.
- Faber Taylor, A., Kuo, F. and Sullivan, W. (2001). Coping with ADD: The surprising connection to green play settings. Environment & Behaviour. 33, 54-77.
- Wells, N., and Evans, G. (2003). Nearby Nature: A Buffer of Life Stress Among Rural Children. Environment and Behaviour, 35, 311-330.
- Louv, R. (1991). Childhood’s Future, New York, Doubleday.