Alan Tilmouth: taking birding to school


I was tagged in a tweet towards the end of November that included pictures of another birder's very young daughter looking and pointing at a copy of Birdwatch. It brought back many great memories of birding with my youngest two while they were pre-school between 2008 and 2012. 

Together we spent so much time outdoors during those years. I may have always had bins around my neck but for them there was so much more going on. From the first days they could walk far enough into the local woods to hear a singing Common Chiffchaff in spring and be rewarded with chocolate buttons and some puddle-splashing for the effort, to the jangling nerves watching them chase each other through assorted tripod legs, topped with many thousands of pounds of Canon and Swarovski gear, gathered around the bowling green at Hartlepool as we waited for the White-throated Robin to appear out of the bushes, there were always birds in their formative experiences.

I may remember the birds but I think they have the muscle memory of tree climbing, pond dipping, stone skimming, smelling flowers, giggling at butterflies and swimming in streams. They also have a healthy scepticism of me whenever I tell them we're "nearly there", but that’s a story for another day. 

None of them has yet turned into a birder, though I now get occasional text messages from my teenage daughter along the lines of !I hear geese! (usually passing Pink-feet in autumn), or she'll play me a sound recording made through the night of the local male Tawny Owl that woke her with various hoots outside the bedroom window.

Could learning bird song at an early age help children improve recognition of rhythm and pitch, and lead them to become better all-round musicians? (Douglas Dickson).

It was perhaps coincidence that the timing of the tweet came when I was thinking about subject matter for this column – and further coincidence that this month's Prime Minister has made some 'interesting' statements about education more recently. The idea that birding is an activity that could be used to teach kids across such a wide range of more traditional subjects is one that’s often crossed my mind. Not only does it encompass so many life skills, but it also takes place outside! Often kids learn better by 'doing' and my own experience with my brood is they have less conflict when they are 'doing' outdoors most of the time.


Birding lessons

Think about all the learning that could be delivered through birding lessons. There are all the life skills such as observation, listening, patience, attention to detail and valuing nature, but also so much subject-specific learning. Here are a few examples that could work early on. 

  • Maths: counting, addition, subtraction ...what could be more fun for kids than asking them to count the local Mallards or school-field Common Gulls? Rishi could do worse than introduce some statistical population modelling into his grand maths plans! 
  • Geography: birds are on every continent, in every country and every habitat. They also migrate huge distances over land and sea, so the opportunities to use them to aid learning here are endless.
  • Biology: a no-brainer.
  • Reading: shouldn't every kid have a third-edition Collins Bird Guide on their bookshelf?
  • Art: birds have it all, including colour, movement and texture. 
  • Music: there's a certain Radio 3 presenter and occasional birder who I'm sure would affirm my belief that learning birdsong at an early age would improve recognition of rhythm and pitch, and probably help kids generally become better all-round musicians. 

At this point there may be several teachers who are muttering about syllabus and political interference in education and I don't blame them. Perhaps one day they'll get the freedom to take their classes birding and let them reap the rewards. More power to them.


Written by: Alan Tilmouth