Act now to save children’s relationship with the outdoors

When thinking about children and nature there’s always a temptation to think back to the ‘good old days’.  It’s likely that you’ll remember a moment when something got you hooked on nature and had the power to move you and create a real sense of wonder.

We’ll all fondly remember the hours spent collecting conkers, splashing about in streams or building dens; going on adventures with our friends where our imagination could run riot.  As long as we were home by tea time then our parents would be happy.

A new report published by the National Trust today, called ‘Natural Childhood’, provides compelling evidence that kids today are missing out on these experiences.   Read the full report here.

Academic research and a steady stream of surveys have all shown that in one generation there has been a dramatic decline in children connecting with nature.

  • Fewer than a quarter of children regularly use their local ‘patch of nature’, compared to over half of all adults when they were children.  
  • Less than ten per cent of kids play in wild places today; down from fifty per cent a generation ago. 

Children spend so little time outdoors that they are unfamiliar with some of our most common wild creatures. According to a 2008 National Trust survey:

  • One in three could not identify a magpie
  • Half could not tell the difference between a bee and a wasp
  • But nine out of 10 could recognise a Dalek. 

As the US based writer Richard Louv says: “For a new generation, nature is more abstraction than reality. Increasingly, nature is something to watch, to consume, to wear – to ignore.”

This isn’t purely down to digital distractions.  Traffic, health and safety, fears of “stranger danger” and changing attitudes have all contributed to the decrease in time that kids spent outdoors.

Things that we would have taken as normal behaviour have become the exception.  When we see kids now playing in the outdoors we have our suspicions that they might be up to something. Half of all kids have been stopped by their parents from climbing trees and 20 per cent of children are not allowed to play conkers.

And this isn’t a simple town versus countryside issue either; the disconnection is as common in the countryside as in urban areas.

Research clearly shows that 12 is the magic number.  Get kids hooked on the outdoors and you’ve got them interested in the environment for life.  If you don’t then we’re creating a whole generation ill at ease with the natural world around them.

But it’s not all doom and gloom.  Parents, grandparents, teachers, health professionals, conservationists, social commentators and politicians from all across the political spectrum agree that something needs to be done.

The National Trust wants to harness this agreement and help find practical steps to reconnect children with the natural world. That’s why we’re setting up a two-month inquiry taking evidence from experts and the public as to what can be done to reconnect with nature and the outdoors. 

To help get the debate started we’ve come up with four questions. We’d love to read your comments below, or why not tweet us @outdoor_nation or add comments on our Facebook Timeline:

  1. What do you think are the most important barriers to children spending more time outdoors?    
  2.  What can individuals and families – including grandparents and godparents, as well as the parents themselves – do to help their children engage with nature?
  3. How can community groups, local and national organisations support families in getting outdoors and closer to nature?
  4. What policy changes are needed ensure that every child has the opportunity to develop a personal connection with the natural world?
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15 Comments

  1. Iain Dummett
    Posted March 30, 2012 at 11:28 am | Permalink | Reply

    I believe children need to learn to appreciate nature. To do that they need time and space and instead of standing on the outside looking in they need to really get in amongst nature, play with it and connect with it. Here are some blogs I have written previously http://valuingnature.blogspot.co.uk/ (includes surfing as a literal example of getting in amongst nature and learning to appreciate and respect it) and http://www.blogger.com/blogger.g?blogID=4254055270310485372#editor/target=post;postID=6075429287993672434

  2. Fiona Wilson
    Posted March 30, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I take my 2 year old daughter to an outdoors toddler group run by a local Sure Start centre. The group happens every Tuesday morning in a wooded area with a pond and it runs whatever the weather. She really blossoms there and is more relaxed because of the outdoor space. If it is windy we make kites, if it is cold we make campfires, if it is rainy and wet we mess around in the mud. She gets involved in pond dipping and cooking on campfires and simply playing with toys and reading books, but in an outdoor environment. This really is an example of good practice by a local group and if people can start exploring the outdoors with their children when they are very young it can only be a good thing for their future development.

  3. John Williams
    Posted April 1, 2012 at 9:44 pm | Permalink | Reply

    The problems are quite simple to identify but much harder to solve. There are some simple facts about Britain:

    1) It is one of the most urbanised and densely-populated countries in the world.

    2) There has been a massive increase in traffic over the last 20 years.

    Changing either of these would take decades, even if there was a will of the part of citizens and politicians to do it, which there isn’t.

    So if you need to live in a town or city, and you want your children to have natural childhood experiences, what do you do? Well one answer is to consider a Waldorf (or Steiner) school. These schools have for decades focused on precisely this need for children to have a wholesome and balanced natural childhood. They have created an education system that puts the child’s development and natural experiences at the heart of the school. In Waldorf schools, you won’t find kids sitting half the day in front of computer screens, you’ll find them spending much of their time playing (and as a result learning) outside.

  4. Posted April 4, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I run a website promoting self-sufficiency and grow-your-own, since I believe that Nature Deficit Disorder doesn’t just affect children. We have been considering adding resources for children to our site; we had been thinking along the lines of providing resources for schools, but reading the report has started me wondering if perhaps this isn’t the best approach. Anyway.

    What do you think are the most important barriers to children spending more time outdoors?
    - Adults not seen spending time outdoors themselves
    - Not simply being sent ‘out to play’ due to disproportionate fear from parents (this a media-created problem)
    - Unrestricted TV and video games. There is research that video games in particular cause a dopamine cascade ‘reward’ that other activities can’t match, resulting in loss of interest in everything else unless use is sensibly restricted.
    - Living in areas with no green space

    What can individuals and families – including grandparents and godparents, as well as the parents themselves – do to help their children engage with nature?
    - Get outside yourself. Garden, join a community farm, select outdoor hobbies, etc. Just instituting a regular weekly walk in a natural environment, and allowing the children to run free would be a big step forward.

    How can community groups, local and national organisations support families in getting outdoors and closer to nature?
    -Reclaim and plant up all unused plots of land
    -Help families to get started growing some of their own food, whether in the soil or in windowboxes
    -We park and ride to shops. Why not park and ride to outdoor activity centres and forest parks?

    What policy changes are needed ensure that every child has the opportunity to develop a personal connection with the natural world?
    -Health and Safety legislation has had the unintended consequence of making everyone risk-averse. The legislation needs to be revisited to make it obvious that the aim is not to reduce the scope of activities, but to make them safer. The outcome of finding that an activity retains an element of risk shouldn’t be to stop doing it – but just to make users aware of the risks!
    -Implement a series of measures to ‘green up’ towns and cities
    -Review planning laws to stop the grabbing of green spaces for housing development

  5. Lyndsay
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I work as a park ranger for a small, urban greenspace and see my role as one to empower people to use the park more fully. I work mostly with children (possibly as they seem to be the people most interested).

    1. What do you think are the most important barriers to children spending more time outdoors?
    I see the biggest barrier as parents’ (and adults in general) attitudes and these seem to be the most stifling to children’s approach to being outdoors. In particular it could be the lack of encouragement and acknowledgement of the things children find to do for themselves. The small, dirty discoveries are more often than not frowned on (an arrangement of old snail shells and feather etc. too dirty to be brought indoors, that kind of thing). Parents often seem to find it hard to empathise with a young person’s delight or wonder for a thing and then this kind of investigative, exploratory play is not encouraged. I feel that children are often left feeling disappointed by adults reactions to the things they have discovered or achieved.
    Contrary to some opinions I do not think that the lack of “quality greenspace” is really a factor, I see it as rather an excuse, good work can be done on even the tiniest scraggy patch of weeds. The outdoors is everywhere and all environments can provide good opportunities to children. Parks are probably safer and potentially can offer a greater variety of plants, animals and interactions, which is to be championed, but equally the front door step can lead to an excellent collection of gravel and spiders.

    2. What can individuals and families – including grandparents and godparents, as well as the parents themselves – do to help their children engage with nature?
    Families could learn to see the value in ‘joining in” rather than supervising. It’s lonely doing things on your own and better to share with the people you are closest to. Skilled facilitators can work well to supplement this but an enthusiastic park ranger is no substitute for a parent who can connect this twig castle to the twig castle with a leaf roof made last week at a different site. Adults could try to cultivate their own sense of wonder and drive for investigation, be happy to learn with their children and not feel embarrassed about a lack of knowledge (“I don’t know, let’s look that up together when we get home”)

    3. How can community groups, local and national organisations support families in getting outdoors and closer to nature?
    I think the most important thing could be to work to an ideal to get families learning together, to make the change from ‘children’s activities’ to ‘family activities’, this way adults might be able to feel a greater sense of the worth of such provision. Also, it may be possible for activities provided by organisations to be more ‘open’ in terms of outcomes. With less focus on a product (acorn planted in a pot) and more on investigation and self led discovery (some planted an acorn, some made acorn necklace, some collected as many acorns as possible etc) adults and children could practise a more full and satisfying engagement with the outdoors. Also being prepared to discuss the issues that extend from activities aimed to include young people in an adult context (how does this work connect to wider issues) in order to be non-limiting to adults.

    4. What policy changes are needed ensure that every child has the opportunity to develop a personal connection with the natural world?
    As Andy mentions above I think Risk Assessing could be seen as problematic but I don’t believe it’s the legislation in itself that causes an issue, more it’s interpretation. A stronger focus on risk-benefit assessing could be championed. Guidance to those who have been restricting opportunities sighting H&S might be useful (I have no experience of activities being restricted so not able to fully comment on this).
    Leading from above, a genuine appreciation of the outdoors in all it’s often ugly, messy and challenging glory should be championed. Teaching provision seems to vary depending on if a particular class teacher and their TA’s have a feel for going outside or an aversion to it. Professionals should be able to stand above personal taste and do what is required for the children in their care, headteachers should be addressing this.
    There should be a greater focus on the value of habitats (parks, openspaces etc) as collections of useful ‘loose parts’ for use by families. Sites are often sanitised of their natural vibrancy through over zealous maintenance in the name of tidiness (or visual statement that you tax money is being spent well). This means leaves are often cleared before games can be played, shrubs are not big enough for hide and seek and opportunities are reduced. Over maintenance/mis-directed maintenance also undermines work that can be done by engagement/play staff and directs funding away from positive, active work. Parks need to be seen as vibrant active spaces that are different from neat, ‘grown up’ work areas in order to encourage a more full engagement. This needs genuine support from department heads, civil servants and government.

    I’m quickly answering this off the top of my head but would be very interested to see others views on how positive change can be brought about.

  6. Posted June 8, 2012 at 10:16 am | Permalink | Reply

    I think our children don’t have the freedom to roam that we had. Streets are busier, everyone is very busy being busy and the world is getting fuller and fuller. I used to play in my street, a big piece of common land, in the woods and fields, only to return for lunch and tea. I wouldn’t dare give my children that freedom from such an early age. My oldest child is eleven, and I won’t let him out without his mobile, a time to be back and a text to let me know where he is. Indeed I have made my children drugs aware from a young age, and they have found discarded remenants of drug abusers in the local park, discarded under bushes….
    We do go out as a family regularly to woods and country parks, or as a bunch of mums and their kids and the children do roam and discover. However dog poo, discarded needles, and not knowing who’s out there does restrict the freedom you give your children.
    My children have loved mud sticks and insects from a young age, but I’m lucky enough to be a mum at home. I prefer holding my child’s hand on the way home from school, over a career and tangible rewards. Maybe if “family” values were shown more appreciation-Mr Cameron is about to take my child allowance away-there would be more balance and time for children to be part of nature.
    I do think that this is a whole can of worms, the world needs to slow down and take notice.

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3 Trackbacks

  1. [...] This shows just how much and how quickly it has taken hold as a metaphor in everyday language but less so in academic research. Most recently, it has been adopted by the National Trust’s two-month inquiry into ‘natural childhood’ and the publication of their report. [...]

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