| by Elsa Lee and Richard Irvine | *
We are walking with a group of Year 6 students in the East Anglian fens to a copse that they call ‘Dead Man’s Wood’. Starting down the lane, one of the girls says to another “I’m actually getting scared now – there might be spooky stuff!”. We ask the girls why it’s called Dead Man’s Wood: “In Roman times they lived there and were buried there and that’s why the ground is raised. There’s actually gold there, but we haven’t found it unfortunately”; the other girl chimes in, “Don’t want to dig up the dead bodies.” Just at that moment, we hear a bang, prompting one of the girls to scream, only for the other to start laughing; “it’s just a bird scarer”.
In what follows we comment on the popular narrative that children do not know where they live (their localities and dwelling places) in the way they used to; and that they have become increasingly disconnected from place. We argue that focusing on the way we enable children to talk about their sense of connection to place elicits data that contradicts some of this sense of a disconnected generation and we suggest that our approach to generating data through ‘walk and talk’ interviews might be used to improve oracy skills in other learning settings, both formal and informal.
Our evidence comes from a recently completed project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council entitled: Pathways to Understanding the Changing Climate: time and place in Cultural Learning about the environment [i] which sought to encourage children to articulate their knowledge of and relationships with their dwelling places. In this Pathways Project, our experience of walking and talking with children in rural East Anglia and other places around the world evinces children’s profound sense of connection to place and embedded, embodied knowledge which is best elicited through dialogue in emplaced motion; talking about the localities that they know and love while walking through those places.
The decision to use a method of guided walking is inspired by inter alia the work of Keith Basso in Wisdom Sits in Places (Basso, 1996) and the work by Ingold and Vergunst (2008) on wayfinding, where walking ethnographies are commonly used to investigate places. Walking ethnographies are carried out singly to understand the way a place functions (Vergunst, 2008), whilst walk and talk interviews often involve an interviewer and interviewee walking together as they discuss an issue such as environmentalism (Anderson, 2004). Our own approach involved walking in teams of up to ten children and four adults for around two miles. We walked in rural areas in Alaska, East Anglia, Mexico and Mongolia with more than 600 children aged seven to eleven years old. Before the walk, children were given maps and invited to plot a route for us to walk that took in some of their ‘favourite places’. We would then try and work out a route that would take in as many of these places as possible along routes that closely matched those suggested by the children. We used audio recorders to capture the conversations between children and between adults and children. In each place moving seemed to give children the inspiration to voice their thoughts. The following is an example from a walk in an East Anglian village which demonstrates how this method elicited rich and detailed articulations of children’s knowledge of their dwelling places. The walk has been written up as a narrative and this is an extract from it:
A group of the children from a combined Year 5-6 class (ages 9-11) took us along a path along a disused railway route which they described as “like a tree tunnel” and in the summer “all flowers everywhere”. Descending into the railway cutting “like going down into a kind of hollow” with the overhanging branches of the trees overhead, the space seemed full of memories and possibilities. Pointing to a bit of frayed blue rope, one boy shows us the remains of a rope swing he had built here with his dad, while a girl tells us “my brother and I used to run all the way up and all the way down”. This memory was followed by a story of a woman who had buried her dog here and then planted the grave with bulbs.
In another example in a different village in East Anglia, we were struck by the fact that so many of the children in both of the classes we worked with chose a particular route from the recreation ground, to the local catchwater (a drainage ditch); ‘it seems like some kind of ancestral route’ joked one teacher. In advance of walking the routes with the children we scouted them out – but try as we might, we could not find a way to get from the ‘Rec’ to the Catchwater. The route simply seemed impossible, so we reluctantly plotted an alternative, still taking in the destinations the children had chosen, but going a slightly different way. We were keen to solve this mystery though, so during the walks with them, we asked one of the boys who had chosen this route where exactly it was meant to be. “Oh, it’s easy. We all go over the ditch, it’s fun. You just have to crawl through the trees, then go under a wire, it’s not electric or anything, then you get to the ditch and you jump over that.” Thus, it became clear that children had their own ‘routes’ through the fenland terrain that were not always apparent to teachers or other adults.
(Irvine and Lee, 2017)
Both extracts here show how, when children are walking over and through their landscape, they are able to show the ways in which they build a living connection to their dwelling places. Although the children who were able to name trees or birds were the exception (at least in the UK), it was clear that these children living in these rural places were very familiar with the places we passed through and had many memories of spending time there; and feel strongly connected to it. This was evident from their confident and comfortable mobility as well as the way they became articulate and confident speakers as they moved about on foot.
When we set out to gather the children’s understandings we were aware that we would be asking them to express a knowledge that is often more embodied that conceptual. Knowledge of place is commonly held within the way we move around it rather than the way we think and talk about it. Imagine a route that you walk on a regular basis and think about describing that in words. No matter how good your mastery of language is you will never be able to transfer your experience of that route verbally. And if this is a challenge for an adult then for a child the challenge is likely greater.
This problem of language and communication seems to be further exacerbated by the decontextualizing effect of the classroom and the prioritisation of academic knowledge that is present in schools in England and elsewhere in the countries where our research took place. Although classrooms are very important elements of children’s daily experiences of place, their very enclosing nature may have debilitating effects on the capacity to communicate locality; the hierarchical structured protocols for behaviour in classrooms can often influence the freedom of expression of the children. Alongside this, the notion that powerful knowledge (defined by Young (2008) as knowledge gained in specialist educational establishments) seems to many children to be that which is to be found in textbooks, on the internet or issued from the lips of adults in formal educational settings; this has the potential to further inhibit the communicative and expressive behaviour of children. Our status as academic researchers from an institution with a reputation for its contribution to knowledge further compounded their inhibitions about sharing their experiences of place that we observed when we began to talk to them. Therefore, we had to find a way to overcome such potential sources of inhibition. We had to literally take away the boundaries and obstacles by taking the children out of the classroom, and into their neighbourhoods; into the terrain where children are experts, into the places where knowing is playing and being.
We think our research offers some evidence to contradict the narrative of disconnection from place recently reiterated by Robert MacFarlane, author of the celebrated and influential Landmarks and a new book called The Lost Words, in a recent Guardian article [ii]. He focuses on the issue of knowing the names of species around us, and he links this to connection with nature: ‘Without names to give it detail, the natural world can quickly blur into a generalised wash of green – a disposable backdrop or wallpaper. The right names, well used, can act as portals… into the more-than-human world of bird, animal, tree and insect. Good names open on to mystery, grow knowledge and summon wonder. And wonder is an essential survival skill for the Anthropocene.’
It would be disingenuous to argue that children today are as well informed about the names of the species in the environment around them as rural children were in 1913, or to disagree with the finding that children are better at naming Pokemon Go characters than species of wildlife in their locality, as the research and anecdotes MacFarlane discusses. But perhaps we can argue that if you give children cards in a classroom they are unlikely to be inspired to demonstrate their familiarity with their localities or their love for their dwelling places. We suggest that the perception of disconnection is not so much about knowing (or indeed naming) but about communicating: about being willing and able to talk about familiarity with and love for dwelling places.
Our data suggest that whilst children were not very confident in naming the organisms they encountered, they were not completely ‘nature illiterate’ and the majority of them were very able to move confidently through their localities, could sometimes show us routes we had not been able to find on maps, and were very keen to share oral stories and memories about their experiences of moving around their villages and dwelling places. We were left with the strong impression that these children did still know and indeed love the localities of their homes. And so it seems to us that naming matters, but it is not the same as knowing, which matters more; and children still know and love where they live.
Whilst not all the same inhibitors of talk discussed here apply to other contexts in which oracy skills are important, the sense that movement may enable children to talk more freely has implications for children’s academic achievement in relation to being able to communicate with confidence. Perhaps a way to encourage children who struggle to articulate their thoughts and develop their oracy skills can be through providing opportunities to talk on foot. Perhaps by loosening their limbs, walking around the school playground or local parks, these children will find their words flowing from their thoughts, enunciating their thoughts and imaginative capacity confidently. This might then positively affect not only their oracy skills but also their writing and reading skills, and their sense of confidence and self-worth.
Anderson, J. (2004). Talking whilst walking: A geographical archaeology of knowledge. Area, 36(3), 254-261.
Basso, Keith H. 1996. Wisdom Sits in Places: Notes on a Western Apache Landscape. In Senses of Place. Steven Feld and Keith H. Basso, eds. Pp. 53-90. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press
Ingold, T., & J. Vergunst (2008). Ways of walking: Ethnography and practice on foot. London: Ashgate.
Irvine, R, & E Lee (published online) Over and under: children navigating terrain in the East Anglian fenlands. Children’s Geographies: Special Issue
Vergunst, Jo Lee. 2008. Taking a trip and taking care in everyday life. In Ways of Walking: Ethnography and Practice on Foot. Tim Ingold and Jo Lee Vergunst, eds. Pp. 105-121. Aldershot: Ashgate.
Young, M. 2008. What are schools for? In Knowledge, Values, and Educational Policy: A Critical Perspective. Harry Daniels, Hugh Lauder, and Jill Porter, eds. Pp. 10-18. London: Routledge.
Elsa Lee is an educationalist with expertise in environmental issues. She has worked as a researcher at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge since 2013. Currently she is working on the AHRC funded project: Healthy Waterways: Connecting Communities locally and globally. Elsa is a founding member of EERA’s Environmental and Sustainability Education Research network and a National Association of Environmental Education fellow. She holds a doctorate from the University of Bath and taught secondary school science for ten years in the UK and abroad.
Richard Irvine is an anthropologist and is currently a research fellow in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at The Open University. He is interested in the moral and temporal dimensions of human relationships with their environment, and carries out fieldwork across three sites: Orkney and East Anglia in the UK, and Tuv aimag, Mongolia.