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Why A More Natural Childhood Matters

posted this in Children's play, health and wellbeing on 01/01/2013

“Close your eyes and think of your best play memory when you were a child…”

We were asked to do this at a Summit on childhood and play.

Mine was a den in a hollow hedge, across the sports field from our house: the perfect safe place in our Summer-long game of Escape From The Orphanage. I can’t remember who invented this now, or why, but all the local children played it from Aaron (2) who had to be hoiked by his armpits, to Cathy (12) whose word was law. I remember the excitement of climbing our garden fence and legging it across the wet grass, the shady inside of the hedge, the taste of shared Wotsits and the excited whispers as grown-ups (orphanage guards!) passed scarily close.

And I remember being in there alone too: lying on the ground, picking leaves off a low branch and day dreaming; or watching ants crawling on twigs, losing track of time and entering their world…

“Put your hand up if your memory was outdoors…”

My hand went up, as did everyone’s in the hall.

“Now keep it up if there were no adults involved…”

Again, nearly everyone.

The event was looking at children’s connection with nature and the outdoors and the question was, how many children today would still have their hands up?

Changes in Outdoor Play and the Impact on Children

The figures weren’t encouraging. Only 21% play out freely near their homes compared to 71% of adults who say they used to. Over the last few decades the area in which they are free to play and roam has shrunk dramatically by almost 90%. And children are generally spending far less time outdoors than any previous generation, trapped by the barriers of irrational ‘stranger danger’, very rational traffic danger, crazy health and safety fears, their increasingly structured and organised lives, their decreasing access to green space; and, of course, lured by the rise of indoor entertainment.

This huge change in the freedom to play outside has had a massive impact on children’s physical health as well as on their social development, sense of independence and confidence, and on their experience of community.

It’s also hugely changed and lessened their relationship with the natural world. In the country or the city, nature is all around us: we don’t have to go to a special place to experience it; we just have to open our eyes and see the sky, the birds, the rain. But we do have to go outside first!

It’s a strange irony that children today are far more aware of global threats to the environment than we ever were, but their direct physical contact with nature is waning. As Richard Louv explores in his brilliant book, Last Child in the Woods, children might get taught about acid rain, global warming and the Amazon rain forest, but how many know every tree and dip or crack in the path where they live? How many lie in the grass and watch the clouds move or just poke about in the earth?

I’ve published a children’s story for adults to get them to think about this because I’m passionate about children’s freedom to experience it.  It matters, for so many reasons. So here’s why playing outside is a good thing:

Research shows that time spent in the natural world can help improve mental health and well being

Attention disorders, anxiety disorders and depression are all on the rise amongst children, alongside the stresses of day-to-day life.  Some research says that lack of free time and free play for children are contributing to this.  But even if not, there is lots of evidence to suggest that time outdoors in nature can help.  I’m sure, when I lay in the den, it unknowingly helped ease sadness from an argument at home or anxiety about school.

Nature is also good for stimulating creativity

Research shows that children play more creatively in free, outside space. Escape From The Orphanage would never have been the complex, developing game it was if I had been in a play area supervised by adults, and it would almost certainly not have involved children of all ages in quite the way it did

Children can learn so much from direct contact with nature.

About nature itself (those ants!), about life (just watch a spider rebuild its web…) and potentially about any subject: there’s a growing movement within education that recognises that children learn differently and better when outside, experiencing the world directly.

And nature is good for the future of nature itself!

As naturalists and BBC presenters Chris Packham and David Attenborough have pointed out, where will the nature lovers of tomorrow come from if children are no longer allowed to roam, seek, observe, discover and collect?

Finally, there’s something fundamentally human about children experiencing the natural world.

It’s not like a toy or another play experience. And although parks, woods and fields are wonderful, the street is a good, close, free place to start that journey. Chris Packham said his life-long love of nature began as a child with benign neglect: he was simply allowed to go outside in the city where he lived and “find stuff”. And even in small things – a puddle, some snow, a blackbird singing or woodlice under a stone – there is interest, excitement, peace and wonder that can’t be found in anything else.

For all these reasons, let’s make our streets places where children can go outside to play and explore again.

This post was first published on Bristol 24/4


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