How can a bird compete with yoda?

Kids can't recognize an oak leaf, or tell a wasp from a bee

Most kids today don’t know their birds and bees — not the proverbial sex talk that every parent dreads, but the actual differences between some of those creatures. A recent study done by the National Trust, a U.K.-based conservation agency, revealed that of 1,651 children aged 10 to 12, half could not tell the difference between a bee and a wasp, and only 47 per cent could recognize a barn owl. Only 53 per cent were able to recognize an oak leaf. The flip side? Nine out of 10 could identify Star Wars characters like Yoda and Jar Jar Binks. With such high recognition rates among kids for fictional characters and such low recognition rates for wildlife and plant species in their own backyards, it may be time parents had a different conversation altogether about the birds and the bees.

Canada’s neighbours to the south have seen the need for change. A study publicized by the U.S.-based No Child Left Inside Coalition — an intentional pun on the controversial No Child Left Behind school program — revealed that many Americans could recognize up to 1,000 corporate logos but failed to identify more than 10 common garden plants and animals. Here in Canada, there have been no such studies, but it’s unlikely that our children fare much better. “I got a pretty good idea that Canadian kids aren’t a whole lot different,” says Debbie Griff, program manager for Hinterland Who’s Who, an educational television campaign run by the Canadian Wildlife Federation and Environment Canada. “It’s nature deficit disorder. I think our kids just aren’t going outdoors.” A 2006 study commissioned by Corus Entertainment — corporate owners of YTV — showed that seven- to 12-year-olds spent an average of nearly 11 hours a day on media of some sort, mainly television and the Internet.

“It’s a huge concern,” says Ted Cheskey, a conservation ecologist for Nature Canada. “If we don’t feel connected, we won’t give a crap.” And the fact that more kids are growing up in cities isn’t helping the cause. Results from the National Trust survey showed that kids from rural East Anglia trounced their London counterparts when it came to identifying wildlife.

Aside from protecting the environment, the raison d’être for many conservation groups like Cheskey’s is to connect people with nature. “Kids don’t come in contact with wildlife, which has made our outdoor programs crucial,” says Catherine Little, program coordinator for science, environmental, and ecological studies on the Toronto District School Board. But the city’s 10 outdoor-education schools, like their counterparts nationwide, have seen significant cuts in government funding in recent years. Organizations like Nature Canada, Environment Canada, and the Canadian Wildlife Organization are scrambling to compensate with initiatives aimed at youth.

Milton McClaren, professor emeritus of education at B.C.’s Simon Fraser University, knows the challenges of running those programs. “When kids go outside they expect nature to be on parade,” he said. “They expect animals to be dancing down the pathway. Well, it doesn’t work like that, it takes patience.” McClaren has led study-based outdoor expeditions for young people ranging from first-graders to graduate-level students; he says many of his students have been moved by their experiences outdoors. “On one trip we were standing out by a lake in the middle of the night. I played an owl call with no response until one kid looked up — there was a nest of three chicks watching us. One kid turned to me and asked, ‘How did you do that?!’ ” he recalled, laughing. “Those students still talk to me about it years down the line; if I can get kids out there, they never forget it.”

The trick is actually getting kids outside. “We have been pretty programmed,” says Griff, “and part of that programming isn’t necessarily birdwatching.” But can computers and TV actually help kids engage with nature? “The Internet enables them to see more of the world,” says Mike D’Abramo, a director at Youthography, a youth marketing and research firm. D’Abramo points to the success of the Discovery Channel or Animal Planet in opening up the natural world to viewers. “It allows us to see parts of the natural world we might never see in five lifetimes,” he says.

However, the reality is that while these shows might teach kids about animals on the other side of the planet, they may not be talking enough about the creatures in our own backyard — or what we can do to protect them. That’s the real question we’re now facing: if we don’t know, can we still care? D’Abramo would say yes. “The reality is, I don’t have to know. Just because I can’t recognize a barn owl doesn’t mean I don’t care about saving it.”