In the past, knowledge of species and nature was part of general education, and knowledge was also transmitted between generations. Today, there is talk of "species blindness," where more and more people cannot name what they see in nature. Research shows that those who know more about nature are also more concerned about it. The "Natural Nations" project aims to increase understanding of the role and contribution of the schoolyard to biodiversity in the built environment and to make children's opportunities for ecological literacy visible.
"Natural Nations" brings biodiversity into schools so that children learn about pollinating insects and birds from an early age. They in turn provide data for our research so that we can learn more about the impact of different interventions," explain researchers Anna Persson from the Centre for Environmental and Climate Science (CEC) and Maria von Post from the Department of Biology at Lund University. Both are active in the strategic research area BECC at Lund University.
Together with their colleague Johan Kjellberg Jensen, a PhD student at CEC, they have worked to develop teacher guides and protocols for data collection and practical advice for plantings that favor pollinators, insects, and birds.
Why do we need to learn about biodiversity?
For example, a high level of biodiversity contributes to the existence of a wider range of insects that can pollinate our crops and wild plants, and more species of insectivorous birds to reduce the number of insect pests. Ecosystems also contribute to clean air and water. In a short period of time, we have depleted most habitats, and this negative trend is being exacerbated by climate change.
The more we learn, the better we can manage and protect nature, and it is well established that being in nature is good for us. It allows us to recover, reduce stress, and increase well-being. It is also good for our skin and gut microbiota when we come into contact with soil, animals, and plants. There is also research showing that children's development, especially in terms of cognition and memory, benefits from spending time in nature, and we perceive nature and its condition from our own lived experience.
To improve ecological literacy in an everyday way, educators can use questions such as: "How many species have you eaten today?" This provides a natural connection to talk about both the species themselves and our relationship with nature. With educational material from "Natural Nations," the idea is for teachers and children to go out and make an inventory of their local environment in or around the schoolyard. Perhaps planting selected plants can increase diversity? By repeating measurements over time, you can see what effect any measures have had or whether the species have changed in general between two points in time, regardless of whether measures have been implemented. Are there other insects and birds in the environment? Are they more or less numerous?
New methodology and citizen science
"Naturskolan" in Lund has been working with green schoolyards since the early 1990s, and through their networks, they had contact with the English organization "Learning through Landscapes," which focuses on play and learning in outdoor environments. Through the "Natural Nations" collaborative project, they also involved "Bird Life Spain" and "Bird Life Malta," as well as researchers from Lund University, to develop new educational material and provide feedback by collecting data and reporting it to a data portal.
"We always include current research in our training programs, but in this case, there was a clear link to the university because we built a completely new concept and method together over a long period of time," says Anna Ekblad, head of the Lund School of Nature.
The central point of the methodology is that teachers in primary and secondary schools and preschools should be able to work with the issues as part of their regular work and not as something extra that is added. Working with biology in this way also integrates other subjects such as language and math and gives an understanding of how researchers work.
"What is collected becomes visible, adding species to the database is concrete and they can see what the researchers have access to. It is not common to make this clear connection," says Anna Ekblad, who is now spreading awareness of the project and the material to schools around the country.
The pandemic provided unique lessons
Anna Persson is particularly interested in pollinating insects, and Maria von Post researches green infrastructure, which can involve where and what kinds of green environments can be promoted or established in cities or in the countryside to improve conditions for biodiversity. They complement each other well in designing how schoolyards can become places where insects and birds thrive, and where biodiversity is supported. Both wanted to contribute to teachers and students understanding the importance of how the entire food chain is interconnected, and the idea of collecting data from schoolyards for research purposes was a significant advantage.
"We were both lucky and unlucky that the COVID-19 pandemic happened during the project period. Of course, we couldn't proceed as planned, but on the other hand, Sweden was unique in that we didn't close schools and we were able to be outdoors," explain Anna Persson and Maria von Post.
This led to the material being largely designed and tested on Swedish children. Nonetheless, the international collaboration still brought substantial advantages, one of which is that the educational material already exists in multiple languages. The next phase is now commencing as it's time for implementation. For Swedish teachers and schools, the project can be found via the Naturskolan in Lund website. There, you can find examples of protocols and instructional videos. When there is data to report, it can be done through a portal with various language versions.
"In a year or so, we can hopefully start processing data from different countries and see how they differ and what's similar. How significant is the quantity and diversity of flowering plants and insects in urban environments? Will there be more nesting birds with more food in the trees? There are many questions that we hope to gain further knowledge about," conclude Anna Persson and Maria von Post.