By Peter Makwanya
DUE to the ongoing climate-related and related impacts, disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic, children in many parts of the world face a dilemma. There seems to be a growing gap between children’s learning and free play elements to enable them to show creative self-expression and explore the environment as a laboratory for lifelong learning, participatory and competence-based learning.
The impact of COVID-19, hurricanes and flooding changed learning landscapes as school days were shortened while learners had to stay at home as was the new normal. Due to lockdowns and quarantines, children missed mingling and studying together, their movements were restricted, closely guarded and monitored while indoors and within homestead boundaries.
With this in mind, many children around the world have had to reduce their schooling, while in other situations and communities some children have stopped attending school altogether. As children continued to be restricted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with cyclones and flash floods striking, destroying infrastructure, property and livestock and resulting in human casualties, children were stripped of their life goals, aspirations and environmental spaces to maneuver freely.
The COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters pushed many families around the world into isolation, poverty and hunger as many stopped working or were denied opportunities to earn a living. In this regard, children have been the most affected, not only physically but also pedagogically, psychologically, socially and spiritually. This impact on school children made them miss outdoor play, children’s games especially outdoors in the environment, interacting with nature as a natural laboratory to combine theory and practice.
For these reasons, the United Nations International Children’s Fund estimates that around 150 million children have been pushed into poverty. This was due to erratic, irregular and semi-assisted school trips since the pandemic began in 2020. The lack of active instruction, play, and play, especially outdoors, caused child-friendly environments to decline. The game and games element includes not only games in general, but also green games with many intrinsic motivations and sustainable additional benefits. Environment or environmental games are designed for learners to solve and overcome the environmental challenges they face in life. Games that promote environmental awareness were missed by the learners. These games have great potential to educate, inform and inspire children to appreciate their environment as a natural laboratory and cradle of learning.
The concept of children’s play and environmental games, their interface of learning, are crucial for children as they grow up. This is not only a duty, but also a requirement and a human right. Therefore, the implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is a very strong proponent of games and games for children. Learning and pedagogy should not take place in isolation, but should be integrated into learning and play. This is in line with Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 (Quality education) as there should be a strong correlation of mind and body, which is closely linked to SDG 3 (Health and well-being).
Inactivity, loss of active learning and play meant that no visits to the environment for active, skills-based and productive learning were explored. The outdoor environments are called nature laboratories because they enable active learning, learning by doing, tell good stories for people, so that the environment becomes the cradle of knowledge transfer and, above all, expands the children’s worldview. As a result, the movement restrictions and impact of hurricanes, including flash floods, meant that there was no democratic learning and children suffered from mental health problems. The playful element introduces students to ways to manage their environment, visualize nature with sustainability lenses, and reduce their carbon footprint.
The idea of seeing, doing and exploring the environment is key for children to retain about 75% of what they have learned, visualized and practiced, touched and manipulated as opposed to what they were told taught and made to read. All of these co-benefits stopped or diminished as COVID-19 emerged, as school classes were staggered or suspended, as lockdown and staying indoors became the preferred environment. This is the environment of imposition and discomfort but not choice, threats to mental health and stability.
Losing play as an ingredient in children’s holistic growth has long-term effects on children’s physical and motor skills, as a healthy body needs a healthy mind. The type of play envisaged differs from the general and tight indoor play, without exciting imagination, intrinsic motivation and a verbalized natural laboratory. The natural environment is a child-friendly platform with first-hand natural beauty and green spaces for environmental protection.
This is not to downplay the important and empowering role of information communication and technology (ICT) in learning processes, but integration remains key. This would mean that when children explore nature, they would use ICT to photograph landscapes, record videos, record themselves and document information while having fun and appreciating the environment. This makes learning meaningful, eventful, democratized and harmonized. As such, all of these opportunities that come from outdoor and interactive learning are being diluted, missed, and diminished. All prospective radical thinking, creativity and participatory behaviors have been lost or overtaken by pandemics, climate-related hazards and risks. Children need to see value in what they learn, how they learn, and be able to make decisions about their environment.
For young children, the environment becomes an extension of their everyday life to expand their mind and imagination. In this regard, under-utilizing the element of meaningful play and interaction with nature becomes the missing link that will continue to make children mental prisoners.
The play element not only contributes to environmental sustainability and participatory behavior, but is also vital to communication skills and vocabulary expansion as part of their intellectual depth, knowledge management practices and lifelong learning transactions.
- Peter Makwanya is a climate change communicator. He is writing in his personal capacity and can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org