Wilting rainbows and 20 other reasons to play in the wild

27 August, 2014

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.Wilting rainbows & twenty other reasons to play in the wild

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.” If your child needs help with sensory processing time in the wild could be the ideal situation.

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!

“The wilderness holds answers to more (1)

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  • Vic 27 August, 2014 at 7:17 pm

    Along the same lines….when I managed a Sure Start Children’s Center in a London Borough I was amazed one day when a little boy sat with me, eyes agog asking me what this wierd thing was rolling about in the flat of his hand… was a cherry tomatoe!

  • Ali 27 August, 2014 at 8:41 pm

    I was working with a group of 12 6 years olds who didn’t believe me when I told them fish fingers were made of fish and had come from the sea ( not in their original state of course, that would be weird!)
    It’s so tragic that some children don’t have a clue about the natural world.

  • Rach 27 August, 2014 at 9:55 pm

    All of my happiest memories as a kid are of playing in the garden, digging for potatoes, playing with worms, learning what the heck a fuchsia is and that whilst pretty, foxgloves aren’t human friendly.

    I was lucky enough to grow up in a dead end road with a massive field at the end of it. Getting stuck in trees, having races across the barley (much to the farmer’s chagrin) and creating tyre swings were a regular activity.

    I’m now lucky enough to live in a house with a garden. So far we have successfully grown tomatoes, courgettes, squash, chillis, herbs, flowers, purple sprouting broccoli, salad leaves and more is on the way. All of us are deeply relaxed after spending time in the garden, getting back to our roots (no pun intended) and seeing nature do what it does best!

  • Eumaeus 27 August, 2014 at 11:18 pm

    Thanks, Lucy. I like your slightly different than States approach and perspective. I didn’t follow all of the links and the one that mentions a sense of wonder, probably has reference to Rachel Carson’s book. That one struck a chord in me a number of years ago. More recently, I’ve enjoyed sharing Ben Hewitt’s article in Outdoor Magazine with my Cavendish mainstream relations. Hopefully all this helps… <3

  • ThaliaKR 28 August, 2014 at 11:01 am

    Today an old man lectured me for letting my 2.5 year old son go barefoot in a nature reserve. I appreciate his concern (‘she just needs to step on one piece of glass and she’ll be in hospital FOR WEEKS!’) but honestly, feet are supposed to touch dirt!

    Agreed on all counts, Lucy, and I do love that Thousand Rivers piece you link to.

    Keep up the good work!

    • Rach 28 August, 2014 at 8:15 pm

      I broke my shoes walking round East Dulwich at the weekend. I got so many funny looks for going barefoot, but it really it so much more freeing!

  • Rebekah 28 August, 2014 at 5:39 pm

    I totally agree, wanted to add: at beach one day, covered with driftwood, the boys spent two hours arguing over sticks! I could not believe it, surely there are enough sticks there to go around! One would become interesting, so the other would want it, then another would be more interesting, so the other would want it… It really did my head in!
    I haven’t had that many experiences like this, but on reflection what I think they were learning about is how to argue, how to have an opinion, how to stick to your guns, how to get angry, upset, what happens when you are angry, what happens to your brother when you are feeling these things, what he is feeling… those kinds of things. It can seem a bit traumatic to us to see our kids argue all of the time, or fight even. But I do think that this is our own problem, and we need to let our kids have their problems and figure things out.
    I just wanted to add this because what you had written made me think of this – a little addition, side track…

  • Cathy 28 August, 2014 at 10:03 pm

    Love this Lucy. I was nodding along when you mentioned Ramona understanding weather. C always looks for grey clouds, to see if it’s ‘going to be rain’ and she knows that we get rainbows when it rains AND the sun shines.

    She was treated to a double rainbow at Granny’s house a few weeks ago and hasn’t stopped asking to ‘talk about my day at Granny’s when it rained and we saw a double rainbow.’ On that note she also now understands the concept of ‘double’ and has been looking for double everything. Today she did ‘a double poo’ which was, as you can imagine, charming… 😉

    I remember vividly as a child some ‘town children’ coming down from London to the day to our little rural school and one of them, upon seeing our school field covered in daisies, exclaimed really loudly ‘LOOK! FLOWERS!’. They’d never seen a daisy before. Even aged six I thought that was tragic.

  • Aviaja 28 August, 2014 at 10:33 pm

    What a wonderful post. I love the mix of insight from own experience, links to relevant knowledge and the scientific input.

    In recent years I realized that I truly love nature. And that this strong emotion towards nature and all its amazing components is a great part of the reason that I am who I am and I do what I do. I wanted to be a biologist since I was 9. Now, almost 20 years later I am a biologist working with research in climate change.

    The love for nature came, with no doubt, from my childhood. I grew up in Greenland which is composed of 99.99999 % raw nature as far as the eye can see (world’s largest island with a population of 56.000). All our summers were spent together with aunts and uncles, cousins and grannys in the wilderness with no civilization within hours of sailing. We made dolls of lichens, fished and hunted and helped preparing dinner on bonfires from what we had collected and caught. We ate fish that still looked like fish and helped prepare freshly caught seals. We learned that we are part of nature and that it is not something strange, cute or protectable. It is something to respect and enjoy.

    Thank you for helping me get my fluky thoughts into such meaningful context.

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