A is for Acorn. Anachronistic nature knowledge and vocabulary [and what to do about it]


So, I just told my kids that starting in 2007 the Oxford Junior English Dictionary began to remove words associated with nature from the dictionary. By 2012, 50 words associated with nature, the countryside and the seasons were removed and replaced with other more tech based words. Examples of words that were removed are:

ACORN

BUTTERCUP

CONKER

and replaced by CHATROOM, ATTACHMENT and others.

They all said "WHAT!!!" Granted, my kids are a lot more keen on outdoor life than some might be but they were shocked, properly shocked. They are not of an older generation nor Luddites, nor being merely nostalgic, nor are they attaching moral value to nature instead of technology as they value both! Clearly to them these words are important and still relevant.

The OJD [Oxford Junior Dictionary] is aimed at children around the age of 7. It has a limit of 10 000 words.

In 2012 A group of 28 writers including Michael Morpurgo, Robert Mcfarlane, Margaret Atwood and Andrew Motion campaigned to ask for the words to be restored. Their argument was one I am very familiar with as it would be with many outdoor educators and leaders, that removing the words from the dictionary is not in itself going to ruin anyone's life but that their removal reflects a bigger cultural issue. At the time of publication [2012] statistics pointed to only 10% of children spending play time in natural areas compared to 40% only a generation ago and worse 40% of children not spending any time at all playing outdoors. They highlighted the issues that follow these statistics such as childhood obesity and anti social behaviour as the result of lack of natural play in childhood.

Several years ago I remember reading an article that described research that found that 9 out of 10 kids could identify a Dalek but only 1 out of 3 kids correctly identified a Magpie. I wasn't surprised in a way but didn't feel it was acceptable. I then decided that through my work in outdoor learning with young people, that identification was going to be a key element of what I did.

I was already of the opinion that if you don't know it exists, you can't care for it. So early in my outdoor learning journey, I didn't feel like a super hero or that there was anything I could do enough to help save the world so I hatched a plan to at least teach children and young people, about the natural world all around us and hope that even a few would grow to love it, care for it and have the choice to maybe share it with their children.

The problem of nature based vocabulary and identification of our natural world fading into history is two fold. It represents to us that damage has already been done, outdoor knowledge and vocabulary is fading from use or actually has gone. The removal of key vocabulary from the OJD also represents to me that we are to an extent complicit in allowing it to fade.

An article I found in the Guardian, disagrees and argued that the OJD reflects culture and doesn't inform it. However, it is well known that the planet is in danger, our health is in danger and to me and others it doesn't take a genius to connect those things with a trend towards sedentary indoor lifestyles.

I'd like to think that a fashion for Forest School and outdoor learning popping up in schools over recent years reflects a wider concern that children do not have enough opportunity for exploring the outdoors and what it has to offer in play and knowledge and actively provides an answer and a solution. I'd like to think that some of the 50 words removed from the OJD up to 2012 may actually have become more relevant again in the lives of children and young people especially as much of outdoor learning is aimed at the early years sector.

I can confirm however that after a visit to my bookshop to check out the latest edition of the OJD to investigate the presence or not of some of these words that they were nowhere to be seen. No Conker and no Acorn in the Oxford Junior Dictionary.

And then I ask, what do we do about it? There's what I do about it, what other people we know do about it and then what you can do about it. Below are some starting points in small ways and big ways.

Well, personally, I read lots, I go on courses, I spend tonnes of time outdoors observing and I watch youtube videos [I am not a luddite!] about aspects of nature that I need to know more about in order to learn and then teach the children and young people in my groups. I have taught myself about weather and clouds, foraging, bird I.D. and bird calls, tree and leaf I.D. I am not as great with wild flowers and insects but am still actively learning and aware of the gaps that I have.

I created a badge reward system for kids who practice certain outdoor skills and begin to demonstrate a basic knowledge and understanding of the world around them.

We play lots of games that use identification at their core and even replace the words in very common ordinary games for the names of trees or birds or animals and their habitats.

I encourage nature collections and curiosity. In fact I created exhibitions and events called Miss Elvy's Cabinet of Curiosities, based on Victorian Collections. My home and some of the centres I work at are pickled with objects such as feathers, mermaids purses, bones, shells, cones and dead stuff! I have visited fairs, festivals and processions with these or artistic representations of these things.

Anyone who works with children and young people outdoors, forest school leaders, teachers and parents, you can all find your own ways of feeding that knowledge back into our culture. Here's what others have done or are doing........

Read this book if you haven't already. It's a really good starting point to exploring why nature is important to children.

Locally I am fortunate to have the Eden Project on my doorstep. It's too easy to take it for granted really but it does a fantastic job of reminding us how we are all linked to the soil, animals, bugs, plants and the of course the food that we eat, locally and globally. It is an educational charity committed to connecting "us with each other and the living world, exploring how we can work towards a better future."

On a parallel note and crucially related, Jamie Oliver discovered that kids couldn't identify their own food. They didn't know what real fruit and veg looked like although they could identify processed foods like tomato ketchup. Will we one day take food nouns out of the dictionary I wonder? It's part of the same problem. A widening gap between us and the outdoors, us and nature. It's all about our natural world and all of the things that keep us alive and healthy. It's important. REALLY important. Study after study shows us that nature and time spent in it is beneficial to our physical and mental health and can have an effect on healing time in hospital and behavioral, well being and educational outcomes for children. Some of the words that are lost are related to agriculture and represent a bigger gap between us and a knowledge of what our food is and where it comes from.

In the following video George Monbiot discusses the idea of "rewilding". He desrcibes himself in a particular part of his life as being "ecologically bored". This is also a part of the overall issue that children can't identify a magpie but they know what a Dalek is. Rewilding refers often to geography and conservation but also refers to people. A person can go through a rewilding process. A process of rediscovering the importance of the wild and of nature in our lives. I guess in this sense I might be a part of a movement of rewilding along with other leaders of outdoor and nature based activity. Rewilding children and young people, and often parents and teachers, introducing them to the benefits of the outdoors and of nature through play, exploration and learning. Check out the great work that my good friends Jay and Rhoda do when helping others to rewild through Nature's Course.

I try to share with groups how we are linked to the world around us. How food, animals, trees, insects, soil and people are all linked, we are all part of the web. Take any part of that web out and it all begins to fail. If we don't retain the knowledge of the parts of the web and how they are linked then we will not understand the consequences when damage is done. Great oaks from little acorns grow, goes the 14th century proverb. When that little acorn is removed from childhood language that's a big problem, it's a bit of the web removed?

I know from direct experience that many kids don't know what an acorn is, and just for the record, that is not o.k. with me.

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