Plants & People

Creating the conservationists of the future in times of rapidly shifting baselines

Planting urban trees could also plant a seed of conservation in children.

In the world there is only so much land and resources to be shared between housing, agriculture and nature, all of which are essential. Since the human population has started to skyrocket, predicted to hit 10 billion by 2050, a much larger proportion of land is being taken over for housing and agriculture, which is leaving nature only with fragmented scraps. In addition to this, every generation is normalised to the version of nature that surrounds them, taking years to realise that it is different to the generations before leading to a general lack of urgency around environmental action. This is known as shifting baseline syndrome.

The People’s Manifesto is a series of articles from different specialists, putting forward several methods of recovering from and preventing more damage to the United Kingdom’s environment. One section of this covers the education of young people, not just to produce conservationists, but to inspire a sense of connectedness and desire to protect nature. 

Some of the proposals put forward in this section are: to put an emphasis on caring for nature into the education act; increase time spent learning outdoors through edible playgrounds and outdoor lessons; and have the youth lead rewilding. One suggested project for youth-led rewilding is the increasing of tree canopies in urban areas.

Why focus on trees? 

Trees are essential to all life. They provide ecosystem services like:

  • Being a habitat
  • Being a foodsource
  • Being a carbon store and oxygen producer
  • Filtering the air of other particles
  • Being a building material
  • Cooling down areas
  • Affecting the hydrological cycle
  • Aesthetic value
  • Good for mental health

Cities are getting hotter due to the urban heat island effect, which increases the number of heatwaves and makes cities hotter. This can cause many problems, including the triggering of respiratory and cardiovascular problems and causing skin cancer. The planting of urban or street trees has been suggested as a possible solution to this problem, as the tree canopies block out some of the sun’s rays, providing shade and cooling the area. 

Street trees have highly positive effects on our lives and are more visible to children living in urban areas than the forests of the countryside. This presents a great opportunity to engage children that do not have as much access to a natural environment with the importance of trees and help them connect to nature.

How to get the biggest proportion of children involved?

Schools are known for teaching children the skills needed to thrive in the world. It is the one place that most children in the UK are consistently available at, as it is required by law. This makes schools the best place to reach the most number of children with the messages of the importance of protecting and restoring the environment. The children will get to spend time in nature, forming a connection with nature which has been suggested to benefit children’s ability to concentrate, engage and learn, to problem solve and be creative as well as improve their social interactions. There are also other benefits to outdoor learning. One particular study has suggested that outdoor lessons can be used to help children with behavioural problems. On the physical side of things, getting children involved in outdoor lessons will help to tackle this country’s obesity problems.

One of the big challenges faced with outdoor learning is the lack of teacher training and experience in the area. WIth the current education system there is a large emphasis on being able to show a child’s progress, which can be done through tests and essays, but it is harder to give evidence in outdoor lessons. This lack of self-efficacy on the teachers’ part has been suggested to negatively affect a student’s performance. 

Getting children involved in planting urban street trees would provide a base on which to create these lesson plans. Children are still developing and being taught what is right and wrong, so they are the perfect place to start to make a change. They are the adults of the future who will one day hold the power to make decisions that influence the world.

Below I have included a poster designed to teach children some of the reasons in which trees are important as a learning tool that can be used in these lessons. I designed this poster as part of my dissertation entitled ‘Design and evaluation of an outdoor lesson plan to       engage primary school children in conservation” and used it at Oxford Brookes University’s Science Bazaar event. At this event I got children to play a matching game: they identified which leaves from a pack belonged to which species of tree. This was to give the trees a name and identity, with the aim to help children to form a stronger connection with the trees and therefore nature. 

Another activity involved putting actions to the different services that trees provide in a “Simon Says” type game. If the actions are funny and involve movement, they are more likely to be retained. These activities can be very easily tweaked to work inside or outdoors and were aimed to allow the children to take an active role, making their own discoveries rather than simply relaying information to them. These personal discoveries increase the likelihood of retaining the information. This research has been given to the charity Science Oxford in the hopes that they can use it at their science centre.


Chloe Trotter has just finished her final year as a Biology graduate at Oxford Brookes University. Now she hopes to work on her interest in science communication and education. She enjoys nature photography and reading. You can follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

>