Earth Day - An opportunity to (re)connect with nature, by @Jon hale

By Karen Hornby posted 06-04-2021 12:55


Earth Day - An opportunity to (re)connect with nature

The evidence of climate change, the finite supply of many resources  and the observable extinctions of megafauna, like the Baiji from the Yangtze River in China, make the pressure to conserve and restore our planet inescapable. Although many students around the world do care, ethically driven to do the right thing for the planet, what about those who accept the evidence but are apathetic when it comes to action?   I think that these students are the ones we need to reconnect with nature.

The value of nature has been well studied, from mangroves protecting cities against storms to monetising the role of bees in agriculture, however, does the use of examples in the classroom of exotic ecosystems actually help. I’ve discussed this idea of the “Attenborough Generation” where the amazing cinematography of Perfect Planet puts nature somewhere else around the world and potentially drives the idea of “they need to look after it” rather than “what can we do?”

Winogradsky columns

I think that we should be providing the opportunity for students to explore and observe what they are living with. During the first lockdown, we gave students the task of making Winogradsky columns with whatever soil they could find. It was amazing to see some of the colours of bacteria that grow, demonstrating the diversity that lies under our feet. Excitingly, if the COVID exit plan had been a little faster, we could have sent samples to be screened for antibiotic properties by the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine ( This was a long-term and relatively passive task, but it meant that there was a high level of uptake from the students. I think that if we want to make a meaningful difference we need to focus on scaffolding opportunities with as few barriers as possible. We can’t expect students to just start identifying every species they see without some teaching.

This time of year is fantastic for noticing nature, whether it’s looking for budding trees or buzzing bees, the biosphere is waking up. Last year we set weekly tasks from March to July that made students gradually spend more time noticing nature and whilst building more knowledge of their local flora and fauna. They ranged from counting lichens along the nearest wall, sieving sand for shells (we are coastal, this gave a great opportunity for teaching some maths skills too), to performing Flower-Insect Timed Counts (very scientific). From this, we have been able to embed a couple of strategies into our lessons.

Plant BioBlitz

Students are given 10 minutes to collect a leaf sample of every type of plant within a 10m x 10m area next to the hockey pitch. They then build a herbarium of their samples, developing a key that firstly forces them to see the different types of plant within the area. They then use identification guides and apps (like PlantNet and iNaturalist) to identify the genus and/or species of what they’ve found. They use this for the required practical of sampling (GCSE) obtaining data that means more to them than counting daisies or looking at the percentage cover of grass.

Mini safari

The other attempts to demonstrate habitat diversity and make students happier with invertebrates. We set up a light trap for moths, bubblewrap some tree trunks and fill a Tullgren funnel of leaf litter ahead of the lesson then go on a mini safari to beat some bushes, dip a pond and sweep some grass. Despite our school being predominantly tarmac, the students learn about their local species, consider how they are interconnected and the importance of habitat diversity.

Many thanks to @Jon hale for taking the time to write this article.   

Jon is a Head of Biology in a small, non-selective, independent secondary school in Jersey.  He also  represents Secondary Teachers on the British Ecological Society's Teaching and Learning Special Interest Group   Other blogs by Jon include:




30-10-2022 17:49

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24-04-2021 18:50

Thank you so much for sharing these ideas @Martyn Steiner

07-04-2021 13:43

Such great activities - I will be trying out lots of these with my classes in the summer term! 
The restrictions on our movement over the past year have been a great chance to get more connected with local nature, and it's interesting to me that this seems to be very much the zeitgeist at the moment. I really enjoyed the University of Derby Nature Connectedness MOOC and, when I spoke with the conservator of Wytham Woods a few weeks ago, I thought it was interesting that he cited connection with local nature as the most important thing we could be doing in schools to help raise the next generation of ecologists. 

I think that one thing to consider is that nature connectedness is not just a job for us in science - indeed there is evidence to suggest that art inventions can be more effective than those in science. How can we support our colleagues in other subjects with this?