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A Biology Teacher’s Ode to Sir David Attenborough

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Sir David Attenborough, © BBC/Rolf Marriott.

Molly Josephs, who teaches 5th, 7th and 9th grade biology at The Dalton School in Manhattan, wrote to me recently about the educational value of nature films for kids. “I would love to write something about the power, intelligence, and importance of nature films for families to watch together in order to cultivate curiosity and a love of the natural world,” she wrote.  My response was, “Yes!” And now, over to Molly:

I teach in the concrete jungle of Manhattan. On the first day of school, I promise my students that by the end of 9th grade biology, they will be in love with the natural world and life’s great diversity. While I can’t always bring them to nature, I can always bring nature to them.

I have a secret weapon of inspiration, a clandestine co-teacher named Sir David Attenborough, the unofficial spokesman of BBC’s Natural History Unit. He has a subtle enthusiasm and magical voice. He speaks in an elegant English accent and has fantastic timing. He has been making nature films for decades but never seems to age.

In biology class, we begin the year with an overview of some basic ecology. With a projector, I can cover the classroom walls with clips from my BBC Natural History Unit archive and watch my students get lost in nature’s secrets.

They sit slack-jawed, wandering through deserts with chameleons and in Brazilian rain forests with pygmy geckos. Over the course of the year, they scream with laughter at the aggressive open-mouthed territory battles of the appropriately named sarcastic fringehead fish. Nothing tops the escape tactics of Venezuela’s pebble toads. There are always delightful squeals while listening to the mellifluous mimicries of New Zealand’s lyrebirds. They squirm while watching a naked, slimy, hairless inch-long fetal kangaroo climb into its mother’s pouch. Everyone loses total self-control when they see bullet ants go crazy and sprout fungal thorns from their brains. Science is fun. Nature is awesome. When used to illustrate a point, these truncated video clips are priceless teaching tools. It is much harder to forget a concept when you’ve personally witnessed an example of it.

The brilliance of Sir Attenborough and the BBC Natural History Unit lies not only in their shocking footage but also in the intelligent narration. The narration provides scientific insights that provoke genuine intellectual fascination. Attenborough communicates evolutionary and ecological principles perfectly.

There is truly nothing like touching a dolphin’s rubbery skin, watching a tarantula crawl on your shoulder, smelling a misty cloud forest, or holding an earthworm in your hand. But as I watch my students on their treks with David Attenborough, it’s very clear: they think they’re right beside him, and they never forget what they learn in the jungle.

If you and your family want to be inspired and fascinated by the diversity of life, or if you’re simply looking for worthwhile material to watch with your kids, here are my recommendations:

BBC and Discovery’s Life series

If you’re anything like me and my students, you’ll be gleeful and flabbergasted by the strange solutions organisms have evolved to confront life’s many challenges. The footage is magnificent and the narration is clear and informative. This series truly conveys the strangeness and beauty, the unity and diversity, and the wonder of life forms on this planet.

A clown anemone fish © BBC/Georgette Douwma

The focus is on vertebrate (back-boned) life but there are also episodes on plants, insects, and the deep sea. For the most part, each episode features one particular group of animals such as birds, mammals, primates, or amphibians and reptiles. The series provides prolific examples of evolution’s most extraordinary adaptations. People connect with the creatures and their shocking strategies for survival.

Planet Earth

After watching an episode, you will fall head-over-heels in love with this planet.

Throughout an episode, you will seamlessly traverse the earth’s depths and surfaces. Covering every continent and the poles, this series is majestic in its grandeur. Each episode, for the most part, features a certain type of landscape whether it be rivers, caves, forests, mountains, and more. Each landscape plays hosts to a wide range of creatures.

You will watch a shark weighing thousands of pounds wriggle in the air as it propels itself from the ocean depths. You will see the first ever footage of wild Himalayan snow leopards as they hunt and scale cliffs. In the deepest, darkest caves you will squirm as you see what could only be sick science fiction…except its real. On the highest mountain peaks, you will experience almost impossible views. You will bear witness to the largest migration patterns on the planet. The scale is mind-blowing.

In the world of wildlife film, Planet Earth was a complete game-changer. It redefines what a “nature film” could be. This series took ten years to make, uses HD technology, and some of the footage was from space!

Planet Earth captures Earth in all its glory and brings us to the wildest, most “untouched” places in the world. However, at the end, in the final episodes, you will find that no place has escaped the greatest force of all: mankind.

Blue Planet

As a child, I watched this with a religious zeal. It inspired my passion for marine biology. Throughout the eight part series, one bears witness to the greatest symphony of life. From swirls of schooling anchovies to blue whale migrations,  the majesty of marine life is present in every episode. Each segment covers a different ocean landscape from ranging from the alien ocean floor to the coral coasts, the open ocean to the frozen seas. This series imbues in its audience a great appreciation for the diversity beneath the ocean’s surface. After watching this series for the first time, I felt like I finally had vision in a world where I was previously blind. Blue Planet was the first comprehensive marine series and it too, like Planet Earth pushed the limits of our ability to, experience the grandeur of our world.

In addition to these three, I highly recommend David Attenborough’s Life of Mammals, Private Life of Plants, Life in the Undergrowth, In Cold Blood, The Life of Birds, and all of his other films


About the Author: Anna Kuchment is a Contributing Editor at Scientific American and a staff science writer at The Dallas Morning News. She was previously a reporter, writer and editor with Newsweek magazine. She is also author of “The Forgotten Cure,” about bacteriophage viruses and their potential as weapons against antibiotic resistance. Follow on Twitter @akuchment.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. alanh79 3:50 pm 09/22/2011

    Sir David’s nature films are the best nature documentaries ever made. I have purchased most of them on DVD, and will buy the BlueRay disks once I have obtained a BR player.

    I have been watching them with my two-year-old daughter since she was around six months old. David Attenborough’s voice calms and sooths her. I originally used the documentaries to 1) help her get to sleep, and 2) have something amazing for me to watch while she got sleepy. About a year ago, things gradually changed. Although the films still calm her, they no longer make her sleepy. She watches in utter fascination! She adores animals and can now identify more species than other children three times her age. Her daycare provider tested her by showing her pictures of different animals, and was surprised when my daughter identified an anteater, a sloth, a tarantula, a dolphin, a clownfish, and even an eel. Sir David certainly deserves a lot of credit for that.

    I remember watching his old documentaries when I was a child. They were great then, and his newer ones are even better.

    Sir David, in my opinion, is truly a hero. No one has brought the sights and sounds of the natural world to the screen as he has done. His love of nature is so powerful as to be infectious. And his excursions into nearly all of the world’s ecosystems have doubtlessly been accompanied by discomfort and considerable risk.

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  2. 2. Lou Jost 5:02 pm 09/22/2011

    Molly, that was a beautiful story!!Sir David is also a hero for actively supporting conservation work around the world.

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  3. 3. janenewman230 10:39 am 09/23/2011

    Don’t we all wish we could have had a teacher as passionate about science as Molly Josephs?
    Great story.

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  4. 4. seanthomas 4:44 pm 09/29/2011

    I think the lyrebirds are based in Australia not New Zealand. Mind you we have lots of Australians in Nelson, New Zealand this week for the Rugby World Cup and they do make a racket. Perhaps they brought some lyrebirds to help out?

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  5. 5. ritashey 10:07 pm 10/9/2011

    i have watched all of the series you sited and agree how fascinating and wonderful they are. my father introduced us to nature shows when we were small and they still continue to astound me. my favorite is blue planet and if you have seen the one about the trench and abyss you will discover life you cannot imagine exsist. i believe there is more known about the surface of the moon than is known about the bottom of the ocean. (Molly can probably confirm or deny) David’s narrations have always been my favorite. i will make sure i have seen all the shows you mentioned. great article and GREAT teacher.. dalton is very lucky to have you Molly!!

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  6. 6. interior design 6:43 pm 12/27/2011

    wonderful post. thank you interior design.

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