Nature and child reunion
by Hannah Fort Teller
Lie down. Look up. Watch the clouds.
I was at a friend’s house last week and we’d had a lovely afternoon with lots of people, lots of children and some lovely food. As everything was calming down and people were drifting home my 3 year old, who had been running, jumping and generally being busy the whole time, plonked down on some big squishy cushions and lay there watching the sky. He was so visibly calm that a couple of people thought he’d gone to sleep but his eye were open and he was taking in the view. It was a very different kind of vacant to the way children’s faces get when they’re watching tv. Still engaged but close to dreaming. This is what nature can do for our children.
Have you noticed the effect being outside has on your children? After what seemed like a never ending winter the first signs of spring were greeted in this house with cries of ‘out, out’. Even on wet days my two have been outside every day – often it’s just in the garden and sometimes for only a few minutes but outside we go. I can feel the release of tension in them as soon as they hit the air and on some days it’s the only thing that’s saved my sanity.
I notice it too on my own mood. On days when we’ve been rushing around and busy busy busy often the last thing I want to do when we get home is make the effort to get two children out of the house again but the payoff if I do is well worth it. Going to the park is great. Going to the woods even better. But finding a green space is the goal.
In his book, Last Child in the Woods: saving our children from Nature-deficit Disorder, Richard Louv suggests that children have become alienated and distanced from nature and that the only ways they see it are on a tv screen or through the window of a vehicle. Whilst he acknowledges that parents site fears of stranger danger and skin cancer as reasons for children missing out on nature he says that the reasons children are spending less time in nature come down to the more mundane things of over scheduling (of parents and children) and the focus on technology. The book is very American and looks to various European schemes and cityscapes to show how things can be improved but even though we have local schools who take part in Forest Schools schemes there are still simple lessons that we can learn.
Anyone who has spent time with a small child asking, ‘what’s this, what’s that’ can feel at a loss if we don’t know the name of every tree or every flower but often a small child will be happy with the answer of ‘a beetle’ or ‘a tree with red leaves’, they don’t need the Latin name or a run down of the full life-cycle. If they keep questioning we can find field guides or tv programmes to help us learn more alongside them. To raise the next generation of environmentalists we need to allow children to have small beginnings. It is pointless teaching our kids about endangered species and deforestation unless we give them the chance to first bond and form a meaningful relationship with the ‘real nature’ around them. Small children in particular are experiential first and foremost. I’m sure all of us could picture Ray Mears damming a stream or collecting tadpoles as a child.
Richard Louv has many stories of how being in nature has helped troubled children but he also shows how it benefits the average child. Being in playgrounds meets some of children’s outdoor needs but the way they play is different in a formed playground to in nature spaces. There’s something less competitive about green playgrounds and children work together rather than feeling the pressure to climb as high or swing so fast. Louv writes about how children often gravitate to the edges of the play spaces when they play together and disappear into the long grass, the hedges or the wild patches. I was reminded of this when watching Isaac along with two friends play in the bushes at a nearby playground this week. They all had lots of fun on the equipment but there was something more imaginative about they way they climbed into the hedge and delighted in each other’s company. I’ve noticed in ur local park that the big rocks around the tyre swing and the stand of pines off to the side get played with by small groups of children in a way that is very different from how they play on the equipment.
We are fortunate to have some lovely parks in our town and with a park like Spiceball there are some lovely wild natural spaces within easy reach of the town centre. Newbottle Woods and Daeda’s Wood are a short drive away and well worth exploring. I love seeing the evidence of play (both adult and child) in them with the part built houses of sticks up against a tree trunk or some thin twigs woven into a wreath and hung on a bush. And a paddle in a small river is great therapy for people of all ages.
Most of us will find it hard to spend hours and hours out in nature but hoping that a two week holiday will be enough nature experience to store up for a year will not suffice. Getting out there even for half an hour a week will build the habit. Half an hour may become an hour, an hour two. Get into the garden and start growing things and letting your children help (mine are very enthusiastic about watering and digging holes but less impressed with weeding). Keep chickens, or quail, or ducks. Little by little get out into nature and let nature get into you. Even if your child doesn’t go on to be the next David Attenborough or Steve Backshall there will be moments of awe for them to look back on and draw upon remembering a landscape, a sky-scape or an interaction with wildlife.