My friend used to be a teacher in South London and he came back from a school trip to a farm that made us all fall about with laughter and gnash our teeth with worry in equal measure. They were all sitting on the bus, speeding down the motorway when a kid spotted an animal in a field “LOOK! What is that fluffy white thing?!” yelled one of the students. “It’s a polar bear!” cried another student in response, at which point they all crammed their faces up against the windows to see, murmuring about how they’d never seen a polar bear before.
It was, of course, a sheep.
It is a pretty extreme example, but recent research has shown that only 3/10 kids can identify a Magpie (while 9/10 can recognise a dalek.) Those kids weren’t alone in being completely disconnected from the natural world.
We ALL miss out when childhoods are being lived inside. Children miss out, nature misses out, the adults miss out, the future misses out! I’m sure you don’t need any motivation to make the beach or the city farm or that small patch of woodland in your village, your second home. But this is for you to send to your kindly Aunt or curious neighbour – those people who raise their eyebrows when they see your kids covered from eyeball to ankle in mud or cradling two moss covered twigs in their buggy, having named them Baby Booba and Hokey Pokey.
Ramona looked out of the window last night at a rapidly darkening sky. With the foreboding voice of a prophet she declared “The rain shall come with those black clouds. Let’s get our wellies in.” Her awareness of weather is ballooning - she is connecting dots that I am sure I never did as a child- whenever the sun shines and the rain comes she searches the horizon for the accompanying rainbow, she is predicting the chance of showers better than most weather forecasters. She is discovering her place within the natural world and seeing the patterns to it in a way that seems almost ancient, the stuff of folklore.
There is a window for young children, under fives, where they are learning about their place in the ecosystem, their “Ecophyscial selves”. This sense of connectedness then stays with them their whole life - if it is not nurtured they are far more likely to be fearful of nature and only at home in places manmade. (Read more on this biophobia here.)
Nature can create a poet as well as a weather bard. Carol Black, author of A Thousand Rivers writes; ““The rainbows kind of wilt like flowers.” That’s what my daughter said as she stood at the top of a mountain one rainy, sunny day, watching the colors arcing and dissolving in the air. She was two and a half.” This long but inspiring article about education speaks of the power of nature in a child’s learning.
Black also considers the idea that many attributes of disruptive children within school are admirable attributes of children in the outdoors. High energy, leadership, a sense of curiosity and adventure, a pioneering spirit – these don’t sit well within many classrooms but in a meadow or forest these characteristics are wonderful, even vital!
She writes; “One day I watched a nine-year-old boy as he led a group of children scrambling over Vasquez Rocks, a great sandstone formation that slants up out of the California desert. He was one of those magnetic, electrical, radiant boys; kind to the younger ones, strong, quick, inquisitive, sharp as a tack, his eyes throwing sparks in the clear air. It was a joy just to watch him, I said to the friend standing beside me. She told me he had just been diagnosed with ADHD.”
Nature has a calming affect on children. The workers at the Forest Kindergarten we visited in Germany last year were certain that they had far less aggression and conflict in their days compared to normal schools as being in nature had a way of grounding children.
This grounding is a daily grounding but also a yearly one – seeing and feeling and smelling and eating the seasons helps children (and adults) expect and look forward to the changing seasons. Some hot pink blossom appeared on the farm a couple of weeks ago and we spent a happy hour chatting about how this signals the summer! Yippeeeee…
The outdoors is always age appropriate. No matter what the age of children there is something in nature to intrigue and challenge them. A baby can feel pieces of bark within her fingers, a teenager can carve a trinket.
The outdoors is non gendered. Ramona goes to a kindy one and a half days a week- it is amazing philosophically, just like a mass of unschooling kids- but there is quite a strong gender segregation. Colours and toys are clearly marked out by the children as “for boys” or “for girls” – something I’ve never experienced on our days amongst the trees.
In other ways nature is a leveller too – you don’t need any specific toys, threads or equipment to enjoy the outdoors. When you are all littered amongst the branches of a tree your socioeconomic status doesn’t really count for very much. In fact, the more filthy and ripped up your clothes are the more fun you’ve had – this is what I tell Ramona when she is worried about her muddy jeans!
For younger children, playing outside avoids all the typical points of conflict around ownership and sharing. I try to make a point of arranging play times in a neutral outdoor space because asking children to share their own toys is unfair and also hypocritical. A forest has enough twigs (aka swords, wands, diggers, babies) for everyone.
If we want children to care about the natural world, they must experience it. Sir David Attenborough says “no one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced”.
Further, kids decreasing time spent outdoors is considered by some conservationists to be the biggest risk to our environment. There is even a term for it; ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’. Conservationist Matt Williams suggests “This is perhaps the gravest threat to the long-term health of conservation and the natural world.”
Spending time amongst nature has been positively correlated (it feels weird to use scientific language here, but I do it to say LOOK! It is LEGIT!) with the development of strong imagination and a sense of wonder. I sometimes wonder if the pervasive cynicism that is found amongst my generation is to do with our lack of ability to be in awe or enthralled by something magnificent. (Read more on developing a sense of wonder amongst children here.)
Children who play regularly in nature:
score higher in tests monitoring concentration
feel more positively towards peers
show far superior motor fitness such as balance and coordination
have improved cognitive development such as awareness, reasoning and observational skills
are buffered against life stress and deal better with adversity. (More on all that here.)
Did you know dirt is a happiness maker? There is bacteria in soil that lifts the mood, fights depression and boots the immune system. I remind myself of this research when I find Juno with a beard of mud, where she has happily been shoving it in her gob.
I feel as if I have just begun to scratch the surface of all of this… tell me the reasons YOU love to play in the wild!
PS – I wrote about some people that bought a forest for £500 on Wonderthrift this week. And this HOW TO on playing in nature is absolutely wonderful – nature play is child led play!