Evidence shows kids’ disconnection with nature spans society. So if all children are affected, how do we focus our efforts?
You’ve got to put them in contact with it, I think at an early age that’s what they want. When I was young I wanted to have pets, I wanted to keep animals, I wanted to lock them into cages, jam jars, the house, the garden, anything. I learned a tremendous amount from it. I no longer need to do that, I don’t want caged animals any longer, I’ve moved on, and I want to watch and learn things as I can from a distance.
I don’t touch animals anymore to be quite honest with you. My partner has tigers, and she’s always stroking them. I don’t need to stroke the tiger, I know exactly what it feels like, and lots of muck comes off on your hand in the hair. I don’t want cat hairs all over my jumper. So we change, but kids want to touch, they want to see it moving and growing. There are a lot of easy and affordable things that can be done in a jam jar on the dining room table. You can put caterpillars and tad poles into that jam jar to keep, and if you don’t want them to die, let them go after a couple of days and get some more.
It’s not beyond the reach of any parent, and many species – frogs, toads, moth caterpillars, are available in our cities. You can find moth caterpillars growing on ragwort on a piece of waste land in the heart of London. There’s no excuse at all.
I think maybe the difficulty comes when parents themselves don’t know where to find caterpillars, because maybe we’re already into that generation who didn’t have that contact themselves. So that’s where ultimately our biggest problem is going to lie, reassuring parents that they can be good at their job.
If parents themselves have missed out on nature, can they too be reconnected with the outdoors?
For me at the moment, in the short term it’s through schools, because all kids attend school, certainly at a young age when skiving is at a minimum. There we have a complete cross section of society, so what we need to do is make it affordable and rewarding for teachers to integrate nature into the curriculum and ensure that they try to instil an interest in kids.
That means relaxation of some of the legislation. When I was at school we had a day where we all took in our pets. I remember being terribly envious of one kid who brought an Elephant Hawk Moth caterpillar in one day, and I wanted that caterpillar so badly. I would’ve killed him for that caterpillar. Everyone got it out and looked at it, and that took time.
I suppose ultimately what we’d need for that to happen again is more flexibility in education, down to the individual flavours that could be implemented by individual teachers, but these days that’s tough because of all the box-ticking. But I think a lot of teachers would argue the same case, wouldn’t they?
What if we could mobilise the nation’s grandparents to get grandchildren out there?
My parents were very strict with me, yet with their grandchildren they are so lax and it really annoys me. But I think that’s an artefact. It’s almost as if they’ve gone through a stage maybe where they sit back and think I didn’t need to do that, maybe they acknowledge some mistakes, and perhaps therefore they’re less oppressive and repressive with their grandchildren.
I think children enjoy a different relationship with their grandparents than they do with their parents. Grandparents are invariably older, maybe if they’re retired, they’ve got time. They’ve got experience, and they’re trusted of course, because there’s a genetic link between them and the kids, they’re not just going to chuck them aside when the fire starts. So yes, that’s a fabulous opportunity if you’ve got active grandparents with the time and energy and interest to engage your children.
Other than it doesn’t have to be grandchildren. We’re talking about units of people, but they don’t have to be related. Some of the groups young people engage with, RSPB groups for example, those people aren’t related, but they are trusted, and what we need to do is build greater trust in our communities so that other people can look after our kids. Teachers and doctors do it, and the police hopefully do it.
There are bodies of people where that trust is there, but it seems to have vanished from other parts of the community, which is a shame. There’s a whole catalogue of reasons why, but statistically I don’t think they’d even count, we have to be far more sensible about the way we do that.