Naturalist and TV presenter Chris Packham spoke at the Natural Childhood summit in London yesterday. Here he answers questions posed both at the summit and by people talking about #naturalchildhood on Twitter.
They should be stung by stinging nettles, and pricked by brambles. That way they would’ve encountered tortoiseshell butterfly caterpillars and eaten some blackberries.
If you had to choose one reason why kids have lost touch with nature, which would it be? Is there an overwhelming single factor?
We, adults, have formulated a paranoid opinion that the countryside is a dirty and dangerous place to be. So it’s not the kids fault, we have to be very clear about this, the curiosity of childhood is as intact today as it was for us and for our great forebears. That’s a part of biological development, they want to touch, feel and gauge things.
It’s us that have demonised that environment, and prevented them from accessing it, and if they don’t meet it and feel it then they won’t develop a long affinity for it. So yes, it’s down to us, it’s not the dirty and dangerous place that we’ve allowed our perceptions to think it is.
Should nature studies be on the National Curriculum, as a subject?
I think they should be integrated into it, because an understanding of nature can give you a broad understanding of many other things which are connected to the curriculum. We know how skilfully teachers have integrated mathematics into music, and so on.
Fundamental understandings of life, not nature but life – biology, growth, reproduction, everything – could so easily be integrated into the curriculum, even through choice of literature and understanding of it. It’s difficult in terms of school grounds, because most schools don’t have a nature area. But I went to a school in South West London earlier this year where all they had was a concrete roof, and they’d done a remarkable job with it with all these planters round the side, growing vegetables and all sorts of plants.
The imagination of the staff to take a compromised space and do something creative with it is all that’s required. Even a Victorian playground in a city doesn’t have to have tarmac, there are many things that people can do, and it just requires the imagination.
If you had to choose between den building and tree climbing, what would you choose?
Asked by @VisitWoods via Twitter
I’d choose tree-climbing, but it’d be a close-run thing. I’ve made a few dens in my time. Invariably we liked to make dens up trees, but they were never as successful. I still climb trees now, though it’s a bit more difficult to get down sometimes, because it gives you a totally different perspective on the environment that you live in.
In fact I tried to get the BBC to make a programme a couple of years ago where we never touched the ground. We were going to do the programme in oak woodland, I was never going to be on the ground, and the camera’s perspective was always going to be up in the trees. Our terrestrial perspective is quite warped, really. We don’t live under the ground, we live on it. At least when you’re walking through woodland you’re walking through rather than on it like a patch of grass. It’s more dynamic.
But yeah, I love climbing old trees. Wildlife comes really close because it doesn’t expect you to be there.
How can we encourage parents to allow kids to play in the woods again like we used to?
Asked by @VisitWoods via Twitter
It doesn’t mean the parents can’t go to the woods with their kids, it just means when they go to the woods they keep their mouths shut. They don’t say “don’t stamp in a puddle”, or “don’t climb a tree.” Ideally, it would be better to take kids in groups, because that allows them to play and formulate social hierarchies which otherwise they don’t get to do.
It’s not the relinquishing of presence; it’s the relinquishing of a degree of control. Let kids do their own thing. I think it’s a mental discipline thing for parents. If you can pluck up the courage to realise that the chances of your child being abducted by a paedophile or getting Ebola virus from a muddy puddle are sufficiently small, then you can let kids run around in the woods and do their own thing.
Read part two of our Natural Childhood Q&A with Chris Packham, and join the conversation on Twitter using #naturalchildhood. You can also follow Chris @ChrisGPackham, or visit his website.