Cover image: Health: Physical, Social, Planetary

Health: Physical, Social, Planetary

Written by Callum Mason, Reboot the Future

As you may know, our theme of the month is health. And, with World Health Day and Earth Day coming up, now is a great time to reflect on how we can teach about both healthy people and a healthy planet. At first, it might seem like planetary health and medical health are quite different, but there are so many useful comparisons here. An understanding of health that encompasses people, communities, relationships and ecosystems is an enlightening one that will help students improve their grasp of the world around them.

A good approach to health is exactly like a good approach to education. A good education allows students to make as many connections between subjects as possible. It develops the ability to solve complex, messy problems and invites students to evaluate categories and rules once considered gospel. Likewise good medical practice doesn’t just aim to cure a condition’s symptoms, it tackles its route cause. It’s about understanding how the body’s core systems, personal lifestyles and environmental factors interact to produce health or disease in individuals and populations. 

These related approaches are often ignored, and the failure to see the bigger picture is partly why we’re in such a mess. The best route to any kind of health is by understanding systems as a whole, it’s about making connections and seeing relationships. This is obviously true from the body right up to complex social problems like the climate crisis. If we are to tackle the world’s problems we need to raise students capable of making these connections; of understanding systems, causes, symptoms and cures. 

Discovering interconnections helps us to think creatively and critically about the rigid categories we use to understand the world everyday. Here’s an example you could use with students to think about the connections between our health and our planet:

Ask students to think about their own body and its relation to living things. Ask them: where can you find nature? Expect answers that associate natural spaces with being somewhere ‘outside’ or far away in exotic wildernesses. Ask next: what about inside the house? House plants, spiders, mice and mould are all great answers to lead students to. Now ask what about on our bodies or inside of them? This might be harder for students to think about. Prompt them with examples like the bacteria on our skin, the bacteria in our gut (which is essential for digestion) or the bacteria in the food we eat. Help them find this conclusion: that ‘nature’ is not only outside, it’s not only in our houses, it’s inside of us and it’s essential for us to live. Show students that there is no barrier between us and nature at all. 

Using this example we can begin to show students that bodily health and natural health are actually intimately connected. Plants, animals and viruses can make us feel better or worse in the same way that we as people and as societies can strengthen or weaken the natural systems we are part of. The giving and taking of nutrients, pollutants and everything in between is one big reciprocal circle. Importantly, understanding our part in a living, interacting system reinforces our desire to protect it. It makes no sense to act as if ‘nature’ is something external which we must master, extract or pollute. This is like trying to dominate and harm our own bodies. And yet that is what modern, industrial society is doing, and we can all see the harm that comes from it.

Health then is about good relationships. When things are functioning well together, they form a healthy system from bodies to schools to rainforests. Encourage students to think through how health can be applied to these different things, both biological and social. Ask them: what makes a healthy body? Or a healthy friendship? Or a healthy community? The Harmony Project offers an excellent half-term plan with suggestions of how you can apply the concept of health throughout the primary school curriculum.

It’s also clear that in order for us to help a healthy system function well, we have to understand it and our place within it. Think through with students how this understanding can be developed. This could include how to have a good conversation, how to ask the right questions, how to conduct research or how to practice empathy. Show students that fostering health is a constant process of maintenance, of understanding, reevaluating, and resolving complications. Check out Global Education Derby’s useful resource pack that covers building empathy and making connections. 

If you are interested in exploring this kind of thinking further, a good subject to cover would be ecology. Ecology is an excellent topic to introduce to students, particularly the higher key stages, because it aims to study the connections between ecosystems and human social systems. At Global Dimension, we partner with the ecological magazine Resurgence & Ecologist which covers a wide range of topics from climate change to science, geography, ecology, economics, politics, philosophy, history and much more. We have 6 free issues of the magazine for you to use in your classes. If you’d like to request a free trial subscription for your school or institution follow this link

The idea that we are all part of the same living, breathing and interacting natural system is a powerful one for education. It encourages students to think analytically about different systems at the same time as reinforcing a moral responsibility to act in an ecological and social way. Lets hope our community of educators can help kickstart a bigger shift towards healthier communities and a healthier planet.