The National Trust’s “Natural Childhood” Report by Stephen Moss is, if you will excuse the pun, a breath of fresh air. We should all read it, grab some kids and get outside! And then we need to think hard about how to get away from the pervasive thinking that experiences are only valuable if they’ve cost us a fortune.
One reason we should get children into nature is that it’s what they really want. In 2011 I was co-author along with a great team at Ipsos MORI’s social research unit of a report for UNICEF UK. We were exploring why UK was placed bottom of the UNICEF Report Card 7 league table of developed countries for child wellbeing whilst Sweden and Spain fared much better. We began every discussion with the hundreds of children in our research by asking them “what makes a good day?” The same answer came up time and again: doing fun stuff outside with friends and family. Swedish children talked about collecting mushrooms in the forest, British children talked about riding ponies and having picnics and Spanish children recounted adventures with the whole extended family on trips to the mountains.
But we also need to realise that giving children what they want may not be straightforward. Our research also suggested that our rather more commercialised society in the UK may be hindering our children’s engagement with nature. This resonates with other research. Dr William Bird is quoted in ”Natural Childhood” as saying “even nature itself has become a commodity” whilst a Playday Survey in 2008 found that for 70% of parents adventurous play happened in an outdoor natural place compared with only 29% of children. Instead almost half of children said that adventurous play happened in commercialised Theme Parks. And it’s telling that only a third of children can recognise a magpie whilst 90% know what a Dalek looks like.
Of course, corporations aren’t forcing us onto the plane for Disney Land or strapping us into our seats to watch Dr Who but gradually and imperceptibly we seem to have come to believe that if we aren’t spending money on our children then we aren’t bringing them up properly or we don’t really love them. We spend an average of £5000 on stuff before our child is even born and according to the Liverpool Victoria Insurance Company the cost of bringing up a child in the UK has risen by 50% over the last few years. Encouraging our children into the natural world runs counter to this trend because nature is free. Yet if we are going to combat Nature Deficit Disorder we need to break the myth that experiences are only worthwhile if they have cost us lots of money.
The commodification and commercialisation of children’s play has two other undesirable consequences. First of all it almost eliminates risk. The whole point of a brand, be it Disney or McDonalds is that you get the same experience every time. And big brands control that experience so closely that they have “Brand Bibles” with commandments as to what can and cannot be done in the name of the brand. And when it comes to children’s experiences brands are hyper sensitive about their reputation and the possibility of lawsuits – so the experience will never really let children test their own limitations or learn to manage risk. Secondly, when an experience is both desirable and expensive it immediately divides children into two groups; those that can afford it and those that can’t. Income inequality in Britain has now reverted to the same level it was in 1851 – in Charles’ Dickens’ time which means that the pressure to be part of the “haves” and not the “have-nots” has become more acute. Costly commercialised and branded children’s experiences therefore have the potential to be socially divisive.
UNICEF UK called for the government to maintain its funding for free local outdoor play space for children and that’s vitally important, access to nature at no cost should be the right of every child in this country. But it’s up to parents too. We need to read the evidence in this report and ask ourselves whether we really need to “Pay to Play”. We need to share ideas on free, fun stuff to do outdoors. We need to make the whole notion of “free” cool. And maybe we should make a list of the other things we could do with the money saved on NOT going to Disneyland.
Professor Agnes Nairn
Co-author of Child Wellbeing in Spain, Sweden and UK and Consumer Kids