The UK’s education system has become like monoculture agriculture, say the founders of Rewilding Education, a community of educators who believe that reconnecting people to nature is key to helping them thrive
Wolves and lynx roaming the land; vast swathes of forest restored – not for timber but left alone to flourish; fields teeming with wildflowers – these are among the ideas championed as part of rewilding. It’s a progressive approach to conservation, which calls for less human intervention in landscapes and ecosystems, and instead supports the restoration of natural processes – and it’s been gaining momentum in recent years.
Efforts to replace lost and vanishing species – whether that be elk, bears, or mangrove forests – through rewilding, have stepped up a gear, for example. Meanwhile, a large-scale 3,000 acre nature restoration project has recently been announced for the UK’s uplands. One startup is even bringing nature back to burial plots.
But now the rewilding approach is seeding itself beyond the natural world, too. Since the 1950’s, we’ve become more disconnected from nature, as researchers have confirmed. So, what if letting ‘wild’ processes take charge again was an approach that could not only allow ecosystems to thrive, but people too? What if, in fact, our education system underwent a process of rewilding?
That’s what the founders of Rewilding Education – a small, ambitious, organisation founded during lockdown last year – have set out to discover.
“There’s something about rewilding that fits really beautifully with education,” says co-founder Dr Max Hope. The current education system is highly structured and doesn’t benefit everyone equally, she believes. “So, rewilding in this context is about bringing in more creativity, freedom and flexibility, as well as more humanity. We want to make education better – and by better we’re talking about fairer, healthier and wilder.” And what would this mean in practice?
Rowan Salim used to work as a teacher in London but now runs a nature-based children’s community called Free We Grow, as well as a community garden. She says a rewilded education is one that better connects children with the world around them; they are given the freedom to direct themselves and are allowed to follow their curiosity.
There’s something about rewilding that fits really beautifully with education
“We’re looking for children who are happy, well, able to learn, able to trust themselves and their instincts, and to pursue their interests,” she says. And for Salim, a member of Rewilding Education’s community, spending time in nature is key to that.
One practical example, Salim says, is when she took a class of children to see the River Thames for the first time. “[They] could answer a geography question about what a river is, but none of them had ever felt a river, smelled a river, sensed a river, or cared for [one],” she says. “There [was] a disconnect with the world around them.”
Similarly, at Free We Grow, Salim encourages children to get to know and love the local woods. When one of the trees had to be cut down, one of the children wrote a letter to the local council in protest. “This opened up dialogue for improving the habitat, including the idea of planting a native oak tree in its place,” she says.
Rewilding Education offers a programme for educators consisting of a five-day immersive wilderness camp, regular Zoom calls, a training manual, mentoring, and resource materials. Participants are also encouraged to connect with their ‘inner wild selves’ – in other words their authentic, playful, curious nature – and to become part of a like-minded community.
“A rewilded person or system is one that’s in balance,” Salim says. That’s someone who is in touch with their authentic self, and therefore better able to connect with nature and other people, she explains.
Hope agrees. “It’s about being able to be authentic; leading to self acceptance and a sense of self worth,” she says. “And if we feel that for ourselves, we can then extend that to others – whether that’s a tree, or a water vole, or a cat or a dog.”
Throughout the programme, participants discuss and explore what a rewilded education could look like. Hope offers an example of a particular line of questioning along these lines: “In ecological terms there’s a lot of talk about reintroducing species, like the wolf or beaver,” she says. The impact of [these species] has been dramatic and far-reaching. If we translate this to education, what would happen if – for example, freedom, trust or equality were [similarly ‘reintroduced’ as central values underpinning] our education systems? What would the impact of that be?”
The programme culminates in the five-day camp, which consists of discussion, play, spending time in nature, and the sharing of stories and gifts, such as music and books. Educators are encouraged to go back and incorporate what they discovered into their own educational practice.
“We’re inviting people to embark on a journey,” says Dr Dan Ford, who co-founded the programme along with Hope. “It’s an adventure. And while there is a guided process and the intention is serious, being together is often very playful.”
Even after the programme ends, the community continues to support each other. “It’s a starting point for many,” says Ford.
So, what could a rewilded generation really look like?
“This is a hard question to answer”, admits Hope, “because we do not want to reinforce traditional ways of measuring the effectiveness or success of education – for example, by suggesting that grades would go up or that behaviour would improve.”
Rather, the pair explains that ultimately, those who are part of a rewilded generation are healthy, confident and secure in themselves, without any tendencies towards self-destructiveness. They would then be less likely to inflict destruction onto the planet.
“We’re hoping our community will be like the reintroduction of a missing species,” Ford says.
The Rewilding Educators Programme – a guided adventure in rewilding ourselves and creating healthy, thriving, educational practices – runs from October 2021 to May 2022 and is open to all kinds of educators. Find out more and register here.
Main image: Meritt Thomas