Children’s ability to explore the environment diminishing

Cyclone Idai

By Peter Makwanya

DUE to the ongoing climate-induced and related impacts, disasters, COVID-19 pandemic, children in many parts of the world are in a dilemma. There appear to be a widening gap between children’s learning and free element of play, for them to demonstrate creative self-expression and explore the environment as a laboratory for life-long learning, participatory and skills-based learning.

The impact of COVID-19, cyclones and flooding, changed the learning landscapes, as school days were reduced while learners had to stay at home, as was the new normal. Due to lockdowns and quarantining, children missed mixing and learning together, their movements curtailed, closely guarded and monitored, while indoors and within the confines of the homestead.

Against this background many children around the world, had their school days reduced while in other situations and communities, some children stopped going to school completely. As the children continued to be restricted the by COVID-19 pandemic, cyclones and flash floods erupted, destroyed infrastructure, property, livestock and resulted in human casualties, children were separated from their life goals, aspirations and environmental spaces, to be able to manoeuvre freely.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the natural disasters drove many families around the globe into  isolation, poverty and starvation as many stopped working or were denied the chance to hustle to eke out a living. In this regard, children were the most affected, not only physically but also educationally, psychologically, socially and mentally. These effects on schoolchildren made them miss outdoor playing, childhood games, especially out in the environment, interacting with nature as a natural laboratory, to marry theory and practice.

For these reasons, United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund estimated that, about 150 million children have been driven into poverty. This was due to volatile, erratic and half-backed schooling itineraries since the start of the pandemic in 2020. Lack of active schooling, play and games, especially outdoors meant that there was diminishing of child-friendly environments. The element of play and games, does not only involve games in general but also green games, with many intrinsic motivations and sustainable co-benefits. Environmental or green games are designed for learners to solve and overcome the environmental challenges they encounter in life. Games that promote environmental consciousness, were missed by learners. These games have the great potential to educate, inform and inspire children to appreciate their environment as the natural laboratory and cradle of learning.

The concept of children’s play and environmental games, their interface with learning are quite critical for children as they grow up. This is not only a duty but a requirement and human right too. Therefore, implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is a very strong advocate for children’s games and play. In this regard, learning and pedagogy should not be done in isolation but to be integrated into learning and play. This is in line with sustainable development goal (SDG) 4, (Quality Education), because there should be a strong correlation of the body and mind, strongly linked to SDG 3 (Good health and well-being).

Inactivity, loss of active learning and play meant that no visits of the environment were explored for active skills-based and productive learning. The reasons the outdoor environments are referred to as the natural laboratory is because they provide active learning, learning by doing, tell good stories for people to live by, thereby making the environment the cradle of knowledge transfer and above all, broaden the children’s worldview. Therefore, the restriction of movements and the impacts of cyclones including flash floods meant that there was no democratised learning and children suffered mental health problems. The element of play introduces pupils to pathways of managing their environments, visualise nature with sustainability lenses and reduce their carbon footprints.

The idea of seeing, doing, exploring the environment is key for children to retain about 75% of what they learnt, visualised and practised, touched and manipulated, against what they are told, lectured and made to read. All these co-benefits ceased to exist or diminished when COVID-19 emerged, when schooling became staggered or suspended, when the lockdown and staying indoors became the preferred environment. That is the environment of imposition and discomfort but not of choice, threat to mental health and stability.

Loss of play as an ingredient for children’s holistic growth, has long-term impacts on the children’s physical and motor skills, as a healthy body needs a healthy mind. The envisaged type of play, is different from the general and confined indoor play, devoid of exciting imagination, intrinsic motivation and a verbalised natural laboratory. The natural environment is a child-friendly platform with first-hand natural beauty and green spaces for environmental stewardship.

This is not to downplay the significant and empowering role played by information communication and technology (ICTs) in learning processes but integration remains key. This would mean that, as children explore nature, they would use ICTs to photograph landscapes, take videos, record themselves and document information as they have fun and appreciation of the environment. By so doing, learning is made meaningful, eventful, democratised and harmonised. As such, all these opportunities which come about through outdoor and interactive learning are watered down, missed and diminished. All prospective radical thinking, creativity and participatory behaviours have been lost or overtaken through pandemics, climate-induced hazards and risks. Children need to see value in what they learn, how they learn and be in a position to make decisions about their environment.

For young children, the environment becomes an extension of their everyday lives, for stretching their minds and imaginations. In this regard, the inadequate utilisation of the element of meaningful play and interaction with nature, become the missing link that will continue to render children mental captives.

Not only does the element of play contribute to environmental sustainability and participatory behaviours but it is also vital for communication skills and vocabulary expansion as part of their intellectual depth, knowledge management practices and life-long learning transactions.

  • Peter Makwanya is a climate change communicator. He writes in his personal capacity and can be contacted on:

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