A Key Note; connecting children with nature

Posted by Julia Schmack PhD student at the University of Auckland @julia_schmack

Powerful politicians are denying climate change, mega companies are patenting the seeds of our planet, and ecosystems are exploited for cheap resources at horrendous ecological costs. There are a few more things to add to this list which most of us, working in Biological Science, are aware of. By the way, why did you choose Biology? I reckon I became an ecologist because I have always been fascinated by the colors, shapes, sounds, tastes, smells, textures and especially by the stories that nature provides. Growing up, I found that there are a lot of horror stories going on as well, stories about how we treat forests, water, soil and animals. I thought that knowledge must be the key to prevent people from abusing nature. But sometimes this key doesn’t even get you through the gate of people’s minds onto their front lawn.

Open Gates

Fortunately I found plenty of open doors at the kindergartens I worked with for the last 3 years before coming to New Zealand to start my PhD with the Ecology Ngatahi group. I gave courses for teachers on how to create biodiverse organic gardens with wild herbs and flowers as well as forgotten native fruit and vegetable varieties and nesting sites for beneficial animals in a network of 200 kindergartens. It was fun to work with adults and see how they lose their fear of spates, drills and saws.


teacher_drilling      planting2

But the most rewarding part of my work for the project and as a freelance environmental educator (www.julia-schmack.de) were the days I spent working with children. Most of the groups consisted of children at the age between 4-9 years old. We built nesting boxes for bees, compiled bug beds, dug ponds and planted “snack gardens”. The children’s questions and observations were so fresh and naïve that there was no room for prepared answers. We investigated every single ‘hypotheses’ on what would be the most adequate house for some of our native bees. There are 547 species of native bees in Germany. More than half of them (53%) are endangered due to severe reductions in nesting habitats and a pivotal decrease of their food resource, native plants (Westrich et al., 2011).


Our global garden

Globally, pollinators are threatened by climate change, the spread of alien species and diseases and land-use intensification (Vanbergen et al., 2013). International studies on the ecological and economical value of pollination highlight our strong dependency on insect pollinators for agricultural food production. Wild pollinators increase and stabilize crop-pollination services and wild bees in particular are known to improve fruit set, quality and commercial value of various crops. But this remarkable ecosystem service provided by wild bees shows severe decreases in many parts of the world under the pressure of agricultural land-use intensification (Potts et al., 2016).


We All Love Stories

For the kids the most intriguing question was “where do we find the bees?”. Working the answers out along their own question, they elaborated the story of ‘the native bees in need’ and decided to help them. Being a wild bee, they imagined, it must be hard to find a place to nest and stay over winter. They also worked out that there is not much to eat if you only like native plants. Don’t worry, there is evidence that children are interested in and understand complex environmental concepts (Grodzinska-Jurczak et al. 2006; Palmer and Suggate 2004). So here we go! Step by step we replaced the backyard lawn with wild herbs, native flowers and fruiting trees. We built nesting blocks and put up water bowls. When the first native bees colonized the blocks, the garden became a well frequented observation spot as the kids proudly presented their project to their friends and families. They explained the bee’s story to other children and presented a local solution to a global problem.

nesting block.jpg

Find a short take on native bees colonizing nesting blocks on our Ecology Ngatahi Youtube Channel.

Nature and Health

Chawla et al. (2014) showed that green schoolyards “enable students to escape stress, focus, build competence and form supportive social groups”. The natural areas helped children to develop protective factors for resilience and stress management. The four main reasons for favorable reactions on green schoolyards by children: “being outdoors in fresh air”; “feeling connected to a natural living system”; “successfully caring for living things”; and “having time for quiet self-reflection” (Chawla et al., 2014). Bratman et al. (2015) conducted a study on adults and the impact of nature walks versus urban walks on affect and cognition. They found that a 50 minute nature walk decreased anxiety levels as well as rumination and increased working memory performance in participants. A study on students showed that a 40 minute walk in nature has a buffering effect on chronic stress (Olafsdottir et al. 2016).


Key studies

These studies underline that outdoor experiences are beneficial for human health. But do nature experiences also influence our behavior towards nature? Could they be a key to open gates and foster ecological awareness? Studies in kindergartens, elementary schools and outdoor camps demonstrate that outdoor experiences and direct interactions with nature during early childhood are linked to a positive attitude toward the environment and a stronger motivation to get involved in nature protection (Elliot et al., 2014, Collado et al., 2013, Bögeholz 2006, Palmberg and Kuru 2000, Chawla 1998).


My Conclusion

To me, hands on environmental education was a fantastic way to communicate what I would like to pass on to children. I reckon, I just used the same key that was used to open my mind to nature when I was a child. So there must be many more keys out there. Let’s go and pass them on to the next generation!


Julia Schmack is a PhD student at the Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. She is researching the ecology and control of Vespula wasps, supervised by Jacqueline Beggs, Darren Ward and Mandy Barron (Landcare Research).  Her PhD is funded by the Biological Heritage National Science Challenge.



  • Bögeholz S, 2006, Nature Experience and Its Importance for Environmental Knowledge, Values and Action: Recent German Empirical Contributions. Environmental Education Research 12: 65–84.
  • Bratman GN, Daily GC, Levy BJ, Gross JJ, 2015, The benefits of nature experience: Improved affect and cognition. Landscape and Urban Planning 138(2015):41–50
  • Chawla L, 1998, Significant Life Experiences Revisited: A Review of Research on Sources of Environmental Sensitivity. Environmental Education Research 4: 369-382.
  • Chawla et al., 2014, Green schoolyards as havens from stress and resources for resilience in childhood and adolescence. Health & Place 28(2014):1–13.
  • Collado S, Staats H, Corraliza JA, 2013, Experiencing Nature in Children’s Summer Camps: Affective, Cognitive and Behavioral Consequences. Journal of Environmental Psychology 33: 37-44.
  • Eilers EJ, Kremen C, Greenleaf SS, et al., 2011, Contribution of pollinator-mediated crops to nutrients in the human food supply. PLoS ONE 6: e21363.
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  • Palmer JA, Suggate J, 2004, The Development of Children’s Understanding of Distant Places and Environmental Issues: Report of a UK Longitudinal Study of the Development of Ideas between the Ages of 4 and 10 Years. Research Papers in Education 19: 205-237.
  • Vanbergen AJ, the Insect Pollinators Initiative, 2013, Threats to an ecosystem service: pressures on pollinators. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 11(5):251–259, doi:10.1890/120126.
  • Westrich P, Frommer U, Mandery K, Riemann H, Ruhnke H, Saure C, & Voith J, 2011, Rote Liste und Gesamtartenliste der Bienen (Hymenoptera, Apidae) Deutschlands. – In: Binot-Hafke M, Balzer S, Becker N, Gruttke H, Haupt H, Hofbauer N, Ludwig G, Matzke-Hajek G & Strauch M (Red.): Rote Liste gefährdeter Tiere, Pflanzen und Pilze Deutschlands. Band 3: Wirbellose Tiere (Teil 1). – Münster (Landwirtschaftsverlag). – Naturschutz und Biologische Vielfalt 70 (3): 373-416.

One thought on “A Key Note; connecting children with nature

  1. Loved this article! As a mom I appreciate the value of exposing children to ‘outside’ – especially since so many kids are caught up in the ‘electronic online’ world. Fostering their awareness and love for nature will ensure future protection of our incredibly fascinating but fragile ecosystems.


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