It’s no secret that children are spending more of their day glued to screens and less time out in nature. There is even a term to describe the negative mental and physical health effects that children (and adults) face from a lack of meaningful connection with the natural world: nature deficit disorder.
But a lack of connection with the natural world is also worrisome for the future of nature. With healthy habitats shrinking and species disappearing, how likely is the next generation to feel that nature is worth protecting if they have never experienced it? There is a great quote by Baba Dioum, a Senegalese poet and environmentalist:
“In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.”
Birds might be one answer to help remedy this situation. Birds are an accessible connection to the natural world for many people. They captivate us with their striking colours and sweet-sounding songs. They entertain us with their antics and social interactions. They divulge secrets of our surroundings, such as the presence of a lurking cat or hawk that we have failed to spot, if we are willing to listen. And they are also ubiquitous, even in the most urbanized areas.
FLAP Canada has created the Birds in Your Hood program as a way to expose school age children to the amazing world of birds that is all around them, right in their own neighbourhood. FLAP staff and volunteers travel to schools to give free, tailored presentations to school groups and classes. The aim is to get kids excited about birds by focusing on the aspects of bird life that are interesting, relatable, and fun.
In-class activities may focus on avian anatomy, where students learn about birds by drawing from real preserved specimens. Kids also learn about some of the challenges birds face and how we can help them.
Presentations are often followed by an exciting expedition into the field, which may be a walk in the school yard, or nearby park, to see which birds can be found. FLAP provides field guides and binoculars for kids. With apps on phones, students can even start learning bird songs and calls.
Learning to use binoculars can be tricky, but once kids get the hang of it, their faces light up as they get to know our common birds for the very first time. A bird’s features and actions get announced with enthusiasm. “Look at its beak!” “Did you see that?!” “It just pooped!”. Kids proudly declare their identification of an American Robin or a Blue Jay to their friends. They learn to look around, notice and appreciate the avian life that is all around them.
Kids also learn that they have something valuable to offer to conservation. During these outings, students act as citizen scientists, meticulously documenting the number and variety of species observed and the effort of their survey, such as the start and end time and distance covered. The data they collect gets added to eBird, a global online database of bird distribution and abundance that’s used by researchers to inform real science.
After learning in-class about the dangers birds face in cities, such as the threat of a deadly collision with glass, students may also monitor their own school for bird-window collisions.
For some students, the program is a gateway into a blossoming passion for birds. Adam, a pupil of one of the outings, now looks for birds anywhere he goes on holidays and diligently works to identify them. Sophie, another eager student, put together a table at an Earth Week event at her school to talk about bird conservation. Sophie educated her peers about the importance of keeping birds safe in urban areas and how to prevent bird-window collisions.
Introducing kids to the amazing world of avian life that is literally right in their neighbourhoods can help foster an interest in nature that may even turn into a passion. And cultivating an appreciation of nature in kids is critical, because we need to appreciate what we have before we can work to protect it.
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