Naturalist and broadcaster Ed Drewitt on how the changing colours of autumn can inspire kids to take note of nature.
On the weekend, the overhanging branches of a Japanese Maple tree at a popular arboretum (Westonbirt) provided the perfect den for some very young children. The tree, only a metre tall and sporting bright yellow leaves, cocooned the children with its upside-umbrella shape as a draping roof. As mum and dad watched with interest and took photos, the children, no older than three years old, were excitedly crouched in their hideaway.
This was just one of many family experiences I observed recently – hundreds of people from a variety of ages and backgrounds were heading out and enjoying the season. Autumn was transforming the green woodland into a palette of vibrant shades of the rainbow. Many had the deep hues of red wine; the yellows were as bright as a goldfinch; and the oranges and browns were crisp against the green grass and nearby oak trees, still to change colour.
It was fascinating to understand how, at this time of the year, so many people, in particular families with children under eleven and three-quarters, had felt compelled to forget the weekly shop and football, and spend Saturday afternoon out in the countryside, to see and smell autumn.
Children learn through touching and doing things – and autumn provides a perfect time for doing these things outside. Colours are attractive – if green was a rare colour the rest of the year, we would probably flock to it in the autumn. I think what engages children is that autumn is just outside their front door, whether they live in the middle of a city in a tower block or in a house in the countryside. They can see and smell it for real wherever they are.
It isn’t rocket science, but children relate best to things which are local and relevant to them. Whilst it is important they are aware of the things that are happening all around the world, children start off learning about themselves, then their community and as they head towards ten and eleven, they understand the wider world. Talking about a bird or an animal that lives thousands of miles away will have much less resonance than the fox, herring gull or trees they see outside their window or school classroom.
And autumn is just the same – whilst many children may not have opportunities to visit arboretums, they will have trees down their road or somewhere nearby. They will still be able to observe the change in colours, smell the autumn odours as leaves decay, and lift up a handful of leaves and let them drop them over them or their sibling.
The more local and relevant we can make things for children, the more likely they are to take note, engage and get out and experience things for real such as the trees, dens and mud. It makes for a sensory adventure.
Ed Drewitt is a naturalist and broadcaster who has been working to engage children and families with nature for more then 10 years through the RSPB, Bristol City Museum & Art Gallery and the University of Bristol. Follow him on Twitter @eddrewitt
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