Yesterday, National Play Day 2016, I came across a blog from The Wild Network and it really got me thinking and reflecting on my own experiences. What is really behind the alarming statistics that children today spend less time outside than previous generations? Read the full blog from The Wild Network here.
As a parent, I have found that it is possible to raise a tech-savvy, gaming obsessed child who still ‘gets’ the importance of nature and is confident to explore the wild. The thing which is ever-present on my 9 year old’s mind is his tablet, or his xbox. The minute we walk through the door he asks, “Can I go on my tablet?”. To be honest, it drives me mad but, in general, I feel like we have a good balance between tech-time and wild-time.
Earlier this week I took my son, his older cousin and our two dogs on a walk. Three hours later, after a 4 mile hike which was broken by a picnic/play by a waterfall, he was lagging behind. When I asked him if he was OK, he replied, “Yes, I’m just listening to the crickets.” With his birthday money he invested in a den building kit and spent hours in the garden building it. A few months ago, he taught his 2 cousins how to light fires with a fire stick (flint and steel – just like lighting a fire on Minecraft!) – they spent a glorious, mostly unsupervised, couple of hours making campfires in their grandparents’ garden. He will confidently (too confidently at times) use his penknife to strip the bark off a stick. He takes pleasure in identifying trees and birds and there is nothing he loves more than climbing a tree, or a rock, or anything really.
I don’t think my little family is unique. I see lots of other children who have this confidence to explore, play and have fun in the wild. So, why does this sometimes go wrong? Why are some children unable to have these experiences? I don’t have the answers but I have a lot more questions – many of which I would like to explore further in some of the projects I am working on over the next few months.
Does the buck always stop with parents and what can be done to give children of less wild parents the same positive outdoor experiences? How can we challenge a fear of dirt and germs (in all generations)? Do boys and girls get different experiences (is it more accepted for boys to get filthy than girls)? Is there a role for Pokemon-Go in encouraging screen-addicts out of the front door? Now that many children have the equipment (mobile phone) to keep in touch and call for help in an emergency, why don’t we feel able to let them range further than ever before? Are footballs as much to blame as computer games (many children don’t seem to know how to play outside without a ball)? Do national campaigns (e.g. #30dayswild, #dirtisgood, #wildtime) preach to the converted and how can families who are scared/threatened/intimidated/challenged by the wild be engaged?
There are, of course, lots of projects trying to answer some of these questions and reverse the trend. The ones I have been involved in include Sheffield & Rotherham Wildlife Trust’s Outdoor Learning Programme (partly supported by Esmee Fairbairn Foundation) and Wild at Heart project (supported by Big Lottery), Northumberland Wildlife Trust’s Dynamic Druridge Project (supported by Heritage Lottery Fund), Swansfield Park School’s commitment to develop outdoor learning (supported by Awards for All), Derbyshire Wildlife Trust’s DerwentWISE project.
Despite all of this investment, this problem is not going away. Something huge is needed to change generational values and fears. I’m not sure what that is so, in the meantime, I will continue to support projects and establish new activities which encourage children to explore, play and have fun in nature – hoping that, at some point, we will reach a critical mass where there are more ‘wild’ children and parents than ‘wild-phobics’.
Somehow, I feel that mud is at the centre of this – if we can banish a fear of dirt we will be halfway there – we need to embrace the mud kitchens, muddy puddles and even mud baths!