They came rushing into the room in their wellies with bags full of beautiful autumn leaves they’d collected in the nearby park.

The pupils from Ballydown Primary School in Banbridge are great young advocates for nature and I recently had the pleasure of meeting them at the School of Education at Queen’s University Belfast, where they helped launch a new report into how ‘connected’ children in Northern Ireland are with the natural world.

Shockingly the research, which was analysed by Dr Karen Kerr from QUB, shows that 75 per cent of children aged 8 to 12 here are not as connected as they could be.

In total, 2,400 children responded to the survey, answering a series of questions designed to measure a range of aspects - including their enjoyment of the outdoors, how at one they feel with nature and their empathy for creatures.

Only 25 per cent of the children surveyed have what we would consider a realistic and achievable level of connection to nature – with boys and children living in more urban areas scoring less well compared to their counterparts.

However, the benefits of nature were also borne out in the research, with the children who ranked as the most ‘connected’ also rating their health and well-being as significantly higher – a link which, given increasing rates of childhood obesity and mental health issues cannot be ignored.

The figures are proof that the Department of Education must embed opportunities for outdoor learning in the natural environment into the NI curriculum. Every child should be entitled to outdoor learning opportunities, including direct experiences of nature, and teacher training programmes should include training and resources to support outdoor learning.

A key focus of the RSPB’s education work is bringing more children outdoors and we’ve set ourselves some big targets over the next three years. Across the UK we want to connect half a million more children with nature through ‘hands-on’ activities and here in Northern Ireland we’ll be delivering more than 60,000 of these ‘connections’.

When young people are connected to nature it has positive impacts on their education, physical health, emotional wellbeing, and personal and social skills. It also helps them to become responsible citizens – after all, the challenge of saving nature in the years ahead lies with them.

 

Pupils and teachers from Ballydown Primary School in Banbridge help to launch the Connection to Nature report at the School of Education at Queen’s University Belfast. Also pictured are Dr Karen Kerr (QUB) and Amy Colvin (RSPB Northern Ireland).

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