Charles Kitchin, Communications and Engagement Manager at the NHS Sustainable Development Unit, begins our series of guest posts reflecting on last week’s Natural Childhood Summit.
A fascinating morning was kicked off by Doug Hulyer, Chair for the day and a Board Member for Natural England (one of his many hats), who put forward an interesting personal observation. In common with most people he remembers considerable freedom as a child, allowed to roam outdoors without constant parental supervision. However, as a parent he knows his own children did not experience the same levels of freedom as he had. His fears over safety meant he was not as liberal as his parents had been with him. Parents still face these same fears today. Now, as a grandparent, Doug, spends his time trying to get his grandchildren to go out more and persuade their parents to be less fearful and less protective. The theme of parental fear recurred throughout the day. But there was also a constant recognition of the real benefits of getting children away from the TV screen and spending time outdoors.
Energy and inspiration flowed from David Bond, award-winning documentary director, producer and writer, who has been leading Project Wild Thing, an initiative to get kids outdoors. David believes we need to “Market Nature”.
If we consider indoor leisure time and outdoor leisure time as being two products competing for market share then outdoor time has been taking a beating. It is estimated that our children spend around 3% of their time outdoors (it used to by 9-10%). It is not surprising that the indoor “offer” is attracting children. New technologies, particularly games consoles, the internet and a proliferation of TV channels, have promotional budgets of millions. In addition global brands have sophisticated lobbying arms to persuade the government to invest in faster broadband to allow more and faster screen based activities. This, coupled with parental anxiety, makes staying in more attractive.
So how does the outdoors compete? How do we market nature to children and, as importantly, to their parents. We need to fight back and market the outdoors as a brand to kids and parents alike. It’s not just about connecting kids with nature but connecting kids with their parent and parents with their kids. After all: it’s fun, free and good for you. So come on everyone – Let’s Flog Nature. Let’s have Free Range Kids. Let’s Set Kids Free.
Technology is not all bad of course but the modern lifestyle does have an impact on children in terms of social skills and, most importantly, health. Professor Michael DePledge, Chair of Environmental and Human Health at the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry (University of Exeter), is an expert on nature, health and wellbeing. His studies show a marked increase in health problems as societies become more urbanised and people become more and more disconnected with the natural world. Currently, around 85% of children are raised in urban environments (predicted to rise to 95%). Obesity and heart disease are the greatest threats to life expectancy while mental health problems are also rapidly rising. The World Health Organisation predicts that depression will be a top three health problem in every continent. Engaging with the natural world has been shown to alleviate the stresses created through our modern lifestyles, helping both mentally and physically.
Tim Gill, one of the UK’s leading thinkers on childhood and author of “No Fear: Growing up in a risk averse society” recognises the fears that society has over protecting children. It is not just parental fears over “stranger danger” but also the red tape created through health and safety rules and the consequent fears that schools, and other organisers of youth activity, have over being sued if things go wrong. Tim is a strong proponent of not just thinking about risk, but of risk vs. benefit. So often the risks of not doing something are greater than the risks of doing it. This is a point of view that is gaining traction with both policy makers and insurance organisations.
The benefits of engaging young people with nature was reinforced by Juno Hollyhock, Executive Director of Learning Through Landscape, whose work showed that children who are bored by classroom based school work can be inspired by applying academic work in a non academic setting. Applying maths and science problems to the real world makes it all more relevant. Showing nature in detail demonstrates why poets and artists become inspired to write and paint.
What did you think of the Natural Childhood Summit? Have your say by posting a comment or joining the conversation on Twitter using #naturalchildhood.