Wildlife chief calls for new ‘forest school’

The head of one of Scotland’s oldest wildlife charities has indicated plans for a Scandinavian-style “forest school” to help bring children closer to the natural world.

Barbara Smith, who has taken over the helm at the Royal Zoological Society Scotland (RZSS), said it is a “growing challenge” to engage children with nature amid an increasingly digital world dominated by social media.

Smith is convinced that primary school children should spend less time in the classroom and would reap huge rewards from learning outdoors in Edinburgh Zoo and Highlands Wildlife Park, which are owned by the RZSS.

“Currently, one in ten children do not have any connection to nature. If we can play an increasing role in connecting families and children to nature, making sure they’re aware of the challenge of protecting the earth, living diversity will grow and so will my determination to play a role in shaping a brighter future for people and wildlife,” said Smith.

“I had such a wonderful childhood myself, being close to the outdoors, and the thought of that kind of education for other children would just be marvellous.”

Smith believes pupils should engage with nature

The concept of forest schools was first pioneered in Scandinavia in the 1950s after studies found that young children were far happier and learnt more effectively when they were outdoors, rather than in a classroom. The approach was widely adopted in Denmark in the 1980’s, partly as a solution to a dearth of indoor facilities for pre-school children.

In Britain, the concept is gaining momentum and woodland kindergartens have sprouted across the country, including Scotland. Smith, however, believes more can be done.

Her concerns that children are not engaging with the environment to the same extent as previous generations, largely due to the distraction of consoles, iPads and smartphones, are borne out by a recent study showing that children, on average, spend less than an hour outdoors every day – less time than high security prisoners.

Other research has shown that watching TV for more than two hours a day increases the risk of raised blood pressure in children.

A large study, involving more than 5,000 children who were followed up over two years, found a link between time sitting in front of a screen and an increase in blood pressure rates.

Edinburgh Zoo attracted global attention in December 2011 after the arrival of the giant pandas Tian Tian and Yang Guang as part of a 10-year conservation project with the Bifengxia Centre in China. As the only pandas in the UK, the pair were loaned – for a yearly sum of £626,400- as a breeding exercise, but Tian Tian, has failed to give birth to cubs four years running.

Smith is optimistic about the pandas’ future at the zoo and said that lessons would learned for next year’s breeding season.

“This year has been a really positive year for the giant panda. They have been upgraded from endangered to vulnerable on the IECN red list. It is a bit sad that Tian Tian has come to the end of her breeding season for this year, but I think over the next few weeks we’ll be conducting a real thorough review of the scientific data to make sure we learn the lessons from this year, and look at what we may do differently in the future”.

Smith, who previously managed Edinburgh Castle, admitted the conservation community was “keeping an eye” on Brexit and the impact it could have on laws safeguarding wildlife. She added: It’s obviously a big concern for us, but nobody knows what is going to happen. I am concerned that leaving the EU will mean there aren’t as many policies to protect the environment or those policies might be eroded, but we will be keeping our eye on Brexit”.