Just leave them kids alone

Watching a man dressed in a squirrel suit unsuccessfully climbing a tree was definitely the humorous highlight of my day at the Natural Childhood Summit (it seems felt squirrel feet don’t provide any traction on tree bark).

Film maker, David Bond, donned the suit in a bid to encourage people to leave their computer screens behind and to get outside into the great outdoors. He has assigned himself a new title: “Marketing Director” for Nature. It’s a big job but, given the extent to which children have lost touch with nature, he felt something needs to be done.

The National Trust report showed that less than 1 in 10 children children regularly play in wild spaces now, compared to half a generation ago. The Wild Thing project and the Natural Childhood Summit organised by the National Trust all have the same aims: to re-connect kids with nature.

What’s keeping them apart?

The National Trust carried out a survey with parents, teachers, academics and outdoor practitioners to find out what the key obstacles were to getting children outside in nature.

At the top of the list was an unreasonable health and safety culture. There was consensus that we are too “risk averse” and that regulations to keep safe have become extreme.

TV presenter Chris Packam described his experiences of this health and safety culture describing with sadness a school group who had been given rubber gloves (generally used for washing dishes) to touch newts.

In comparison, when he was a child, “I touched and smelled nature,” (and he didn’t bother washing his hands once he’d finished either).

Both David Bond and Packham, who spoke at the event, said as a society, we’re afraid of nature. Packham went so far as to call our culture “biophobic.” He vehemently detests hand sanitisers, holding a bottle of one up during his talk with obvious distaste saying that it showed how we now found nature as dangerous and dirty.

Free range?

Other obstacles identified in the report included traffic dangers, making it hard for children to roam from home unsupervised.

TV presenter Stephen Moss, who wrote the National Childhood report, has said that children have less freedom to roam than free-range chickens. I guess it depends on the chicken.

Certainly the report shows an alarming trend: the area a child is able to roam unsupervised has shrunk by 90% in just one generation. Tim Gill, who’s written about the effects of Children growing up in a risk-averse society, showed us a map of an urban centre with the areas different generations of children in the same family had been allowed to explore unsupervised highlighted. While the grandparents’ range was huge, as they had been given free range to explore most of the city on their own, the grandchild’s range was represented as a red dot on the map: he can walk to the end of his street and back only.

The trend is concerning because the experts seem to think that letting kids experience nature on their own without adult interference is key.

I think we all know this to be true from personal experience. I was left for hours after school to play in my neighbours’ backyard in Toronto.

This is harder to do in London, but I’m going to listen to Tim Gill on this one. He says parents have “lost the art of benign neglect.” I am going to culture this art, as it might also allow me to read more books in the park while the kids climb trees unsupervised; potentially a win-win situation all around.

Other barriers cited in the report were:

  • the rise of “addictive” indoor entertainment
  • finding time and space for nature in schools
  • less access to green spaces
  • socio-economic and cultural factors.

A study from Glasgow, cited in the report, showed that the most poor were six times more likely to have no experience whatsoever or “wild spaces.” These inequalities in access to green spaces are a critical issue to overcome, which becomes harder when a child’s parents, and even their grandparents, have no memory or deep connection with nature.

I noticed that everyone had different views of nature at the conference. How “wild” does nature need to be? Is it any space that’s outside? Does the sidewalk count?

Nature “doesn’t have to be big and glamorous, it can be found anywhere” Packham said. He still has a starling’s wing he found near the 4a bus stop in suburban Southampton. Flick over a stone and there’s a wealth of nature that could keep you occupied for ages.

That’s good because this generation and the next generation of kids will be increasingly living in cities – 95% of kids will live in cities in the next 50 – 80 years. So we will have to find slices of nature in those urban spaces. Creating more interesting and biodiverse urban green spaces for kids to explore will be increasingly important.

Technology was also divisive. Some participants came across as slightly Luddite, blaming computers and TVs for kids disconnection with nature. Some wanted computers or TV programmes shut down for a day as a key aim of any campaign. But it seems to me that an approach that uses technology to explore nature will work better.

Mission Explore has loads of nature activities on their website – some of which involve using digital photography to make a stop motion film. And the Wild time app has time-based nature activity ideas. Only have 10 minutes? Why not follow a trail of ants? So long as it gets them keen to be outside then mission accomplished!

Pakham warned that we don’t have much time to turn things around. Children who “might have stood on this stage here” in years to come to fight for nature won’t if they’ve never felt passionately about themselves. “If they never had it, what are they going to fight for?”

“It’s us that have demonised that environment, and prevented them from accessing it, and if they don’t meet it and feel it then they won’t develop a long affinity for it. …it’s not the dirty and dangerous place that we’ve allowed our perceptions to think it is,” Packham says in this blog.

Who needs to get on board to change things? Participants identified parents, teachers, policy makers – a society wide change is required that includes better policies, more nature-based teaching and the support of the private sector.

There’s a lot of talking at conferences. Packham advised everyone to stop talking, go home, wash out a jam jar, put a caterpillar in it and watch it change into a butterfly.

I agree. While there are big societal changes to be made, I think parents need to start with the small things.

My daughter caught a fish last month and watched Grandpa gut it and cut its stomach open to see what it ate. Her emotions changed from disgust to fascination. That experience might have changed her forever. Maybe it will be the same with the caterpillar.

Exploring nature’s a bit like that. When kids start to experience and explore nature, it can seem a bit disgusting, scary and strange. But then they start to wonder how they ever lived without it.

Read the Natural Childhood report by Stephen Moss

Note: Because of technical issues, the original blog was lost. This reposted blog is different.