Not so very long ago, roaming through the woods, climbing trees, building dens and generally having a wild time would have been considered part and parcel of a normal, healthy childhood. But within a matter of decades, the wild child has become a critically endangered species.
These days, just one in 10 children ever play in wild places; the school nature table has been consigned to the store cupboard and wild words such as acorn and bluebell have been expunged from the Oxford English Junior Dictionary.
Experts have warned that if families, schools and society don’t take action soon, a whole generation is at risk of growing up completely disconnected from the natural world.
Barriers to nature
Spending time outdoors in nature is good for kids. Regular access to green space has been shown to improve children’s ability to judge risks and solve problems; boost physical fitness and mental wellbeing; stimulate imagination and creativity, develop resilience and independence and enhance communication and social skills.
‘There is a whole body of research from around the world showing clearly that children are happier and healthier when they have regular contact with nature,’ says Lucy McRobert, The Wildlife Trust’s Nature Matters Campaign Manager.
Parents know this. In a recent poll by The Wildlife Trusts for its #EveryChildWild campaign 91% of parents agreed that contact with nature and wildlife is important for children. And yet 78% were concerned that their kids didn’t spend enough time in the great outdoors. So if families are aware of the benefits of wild time, what’s stopping kids from getting any?
The Wild Network, a partnership of organisations and individuals dedicated to rewilding childhood, has identified 11 barriers that come between children and nature, which it has broken down into four subgroups: time, space, fear and technology.
‘These barriers are changing and affect children differently depending on geography and demography,’ says Natalie Johnson, Wild Time Partnerships Lead at The Wild Network. ‘We need to find ways of overcoming these barriers and helping kids from all backgrounds to get outside more.’
Modern life is busy and parents today often feel that they simply can’t spare the time to go for a walk or bike ride with their kids, while children’s days have also become minutely scheduled, with no time left over for exploring on top of violin practice, swimming lessons and extra maths homework.
‘Children today aren’t allowed to be bored because their time is so structured,’ laments Lucy. ‘I remember being thrown outdoors and told to entertain myself but the idea of going for an unstructured adventure in the woods is quite alien nowadays.’
There is no doubt that diminishing green space has had a direct effect on wild time for children everywhere. City kids are being forced to watch their common land make way for housing developments, shops, fast food outlets and office blocks. Meanwhile, children in the countryside are often cut off from fields and woods by busy main roads.
‘Our wildlife is in decline and the opportunities to experience it are shrinking,’ says Lucy. ‘Our parks are becoming manicured and closed-in, our meadows have declined by 97% and we have lost half our ancient woodlands.’
For middle class families, the big fear that prevents parents from allowing their children to go and play in the woods is ‘stranger danger’, while children in poorer areas may be prevented from visiting their local park due to the threat of gang violence. Then of course, our heavily traffic congested streets present a very real danger to all youngsters, especially if they walk about with headphones on.
What’s more, we live in a risk averse culture in which parents are more likely to say ‘put that down, it’s dirty’ to their children than roll over a log to look for bugs with them, for example. Sadly, children who are taught to fear nature will most likely pass these irrational fears onto the next generation.
Technology has invaded every aspect of modern life with astonishing rapidity so that there is very little disconnect between on and offline anymore. In Britain, the average 11-15 year-old now spends a shocking 7.5 hours a day in front of a screen. The rise in screen time seems to have gone hand-in-hand with the decline in wild time, but according to Natalie, technology is often unfairly blamed for driving children away from nature.
‘Kids are becoming disconnected from nature due to other barriers and technology is filling the gap,’ she argues. ‘Research shows that kids want to play outdoors but parents say ‘no’ because of safety concerns or lack of time, so kids stay indoors and switch on their devices or the TV instead.’
So how can a time-poor, technology-dependent family that lives miles from the woods and feels surrounded by dangers inject a little wildness into their lives? There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to getting kids back to nature but there are plenty of simple ideas out there that can make a huge difference.
Step outside the backdoor
According to Natalie, there’s a commonly held misconception that you have to travel into the heart of the countryside to have a wild experience. The Wild Network lists dozens of wild activity ideas, both large and small, that can be done in the garden or local green space, from walking barefoot in the rain to making a mud volcano. Check out this Wild Friday Challenge blog for inspiration or else find some suggestions from this Practical Guide to Family Adventures from The Wildlife Trusts.
‘You don’t have to dress head-to-toe in expensive hiking gear and go camping in the woods to have a wild time; just step outside the back door,’ she insists.
Join a nature club
The Wildlife Trusts runs more than 240 nature clubs across the UK, including Nature Tots and Wildlife Watch groups, reaching around 300,000 children. These clubs provide children of all ages with the chance to have a go at bat detecting, pond dipping, wild camping, foraging, natural crafts, conservation tasks and more.
‘Parents can come along and see the look of delight on their kids’ faces, and then they gain the confidence and inspiration to have wild experiences as a family,’ says Lucy.
Walk to school
Today’s kids miss a huge opportunity to interact with nature every day because they travel to school by car or bus. In 1971 80% of seven and eight-year-olds walked to school, but by 1991 the figure had dropped to 10% and is likely to be even lower today.
While parents may like their children to be able to walk to school unaccompanied in theory, safety fears, combined with barriers such as disapproval from the neighbours prevent them from doing so. One solution is for children in the same neighbourhood to walk to and from school together. To help make this happen, Natalie advises parents to set up a Wild Local, which enables them to discuss solutions and share ideas at a grassroots level.
‘A Wild Local gives families a sense of belonging,’ explains Natalie. ‘It just takes one parent to set one up and then everyone wants to join in and suddenly walking to school becomes normal again.’
Get the app
When used to enhance rather than take over our lives, technology can actually help to reconnect children with nature rather than cut them further off from it. The Persil Wild Explorers App, created in partnership with The Wild Network, is packed with more than 100 outdoor activities and is available free to download. The app clocks wild time, providing a competitive aspect, and fits into kids’ worlds seamlessly.
Geocaching is a great wild experience involving technology that families can have together. Geocaches are hidden treasures that you navigate using GPS to find. There are around two million geocaches around the world, with many of them secreted in urban parks and common land.
In a similar vein, the current craze for Pokemon Go could help kids spend more time in nature. While the game has been criticised for turning young people into zombies, Natalie believes that anything that gets children outdoors is ultimately a good thing.
As children spend a large part of their lives at school, it is vital that wild time takes place not just at home and on holiday but within school time too.
According to the Natural Connections Project, which took place over four-years in schools in South West England, just eight per cent of children aged 6-15 visited the natural environment with their school during 2013-15. Less than a quarter of children who took part in the #EveryChildWild poll said that their school had an indoor nature display such as a nature table and only half had access to an outdoor nature area.
The trouble is that teachers and schools are under so much pressure from league tables and Ofsted inspections that they don’t feel that they can justify adding outdoor learning to the already jam-packed timetable. But The Wild Network is hoping to change this by showing teachers the evidence in favour of wild learning, together with simple suggestions on how to take lessons alfresco.
Research has shown that outdoor lessons improve children’s behaviour, school attendance and exam results. When schools taking part in the Wild Connections Project were shown how to incorporate wild learning into the daily school timetable, 87% reported finding it useful for delivering all areas of the curriculum.
‘We don’t want outdoor time to become one more burden for schools,’ says Natalie. ‘We say don’t treat it as an addition, but why not teach times tables in the school ground?’
While learning in the natural environment benefits all children, the most dramatic improvement, according to Lucy, is often seen in children with mental or physical disorders or behavioural or learning problems. ‘Contact with nature helps them to concentrate and focus, gets them out of the traditional classroom space or digital box and really plays to their strengths,’ she says.
Teachers can get inspiration from The Wild Network’s Wild Time Learning web tool, which suggests learning activities tagged against the national curriculum. Other ways of bringing wildness back into the school day include establishing links with a Forest School—initiatives run by LEAs, charities or private companies that teach children about the environment in a woodland setting; organising a field trip at one of the 2,500 plus nature reserves around the country or applying for a grant from The Tree Council to plant trees or create an orchard in the school grounds.
While families and schools can doubtlessly do a lot to reconnect children with nature, there are some who say that a genuinely wild childhood needs at least some wild experiences without adult supervision.
But the days when kids were free to roam and explore the wild unaccompanied by adults seem to be long gone. A child growing up in 1915 was thought to have a roaming range of about six miles—a figure that has now shrunk to scarcely 300 yards.
While acknowledging that many of the dangers children face are real, Lucy encourages parents to ‘step back a little if it is safe to do so’ or else to allow children to play outdoors in a more ‘unstructured way, if not entirely unsupervised’.
For childhood to become just slightly more free range, it will require a big effort on the part of everyone. Communities and the police need to work together to make streets safer for young people; town planners need to introduce more green spaces together with safety measures such as wider pavements and more 20mph zones; schools and families need to find more ways of getting nature into everyday life and the rest of us need to change our attitude towards children in nature away from ‘on the loose’ and towards ‘wild and free’.