I read a good article by Matt Baker in the Wildlife Trusts Magazine this month. He was bemoaning the fact that a whole generation of children are growing up without experiencing the natural world directly, but rather indirectly via playstations and the TV. Also the fact that the natural world is seen as being something that has to be packaged, that you have to travel to, and that you need equipment to enjoy.
I teach Nordic Walking classes in and around Tamworth. I am often out walking either with clients or on my own. On a beautiful summer day, warm and sunny, you can walk for miles without seeing anybody, even on footpaths through housing estates, and parks adjacent to homes. In the school summer holidays, children are indoors, not outdoors playing.
I was lucky as a child. I lived in South London, but we had a small patch of wild ground and allotments at the rear of our garden. I spent so much time there as a child. I made a den, climbed the elm trees (sadly they are now gone, victims of Dutch Elm disease), and explored the stream and wildlife around it. I learned to identify different plants by their flowers, seeds and leaves. I learned to identify different insects, pondweeds and the little stickleback fish that darted up and down the stream. I caught tadpoles and watched them grow into frogs. I learned to identify grass snakes and adders. I was enthralled by the butteflies that flitted up and down the woodland edge. It was magical, and I loved being outdoors.
We had plenty of nature reserves near our home and I visited them when I could, but nature wasn’t a packaged experience – it was something just outside my door.
Food, also, was something you grew as much as possible. We always had fresh fruit from our fruit trees and vegetables from our garden and allotment. You ate what was growing, what you could pick that day. For the winter we stored our apples and potatoes and onions. We stored our own seeds for next year. And this was in London, not “the countryside”. Our neighbours had chickens.
We now grow vegetables in our back and front garden and at Alvecote Wood. When I first planted veg in the front garden, people wondered whether they would be stolen. Nobody has touched them. I’d actually be quite happy if a child stole a few tomatoes, or picked some stems of rhubarb. But they don’t. I suspect most of them don’t know what the plants are, if they even notice them as the hurry by with their hoods up and rap blasting out of their mobile phones.
A couple of years ago, I was potting up strawberry runners to make new plants for next year. Our cleaner came and had to bring her little boy because of a glitch in childcare arrangements. She asked if he could plug in his playstation, but he quickly became enthralled in what I was doing. An hour later, hands slightly muddy, he had helped me pot up a lot of strawberry plants, and had also collected a lot of snails on the edge of our pond to look at the different sizes and colours. His mother was amazed – he’d never played outside like that before. She was beginning to think of planting a few veg in her own garden because of the interest he’d shown in ours.
Being outside is magic. I love music and man-made entertainment, but it doesn’t come close to the permanent spectacular show that the natural world puts on for us. Buying food in the supermarket doesn’t come close to eating your own potatoes, beans, peas, tomatoes, apples, rhubarb, onions, garlic and anything else you can grow, warts and all.
We’d like to provide more opportunities for children to enjoy our woods – it is close to a town and several villages and there are so many things they could learn. It is frustrating that there are so many barriers placed in our way. Not just CRB checks (which are obviously important), but accreditation schemes that, while worthy in themselves, cost money forcing us to choose between spending it on the wildlife that is there, and the children who should be enjoying it. Accreditation of sites based upon learning plans, lesson plans and learning objectives leaves no flexibility for children to enjoy nature spontaneously, and adds to the impression Matt Baker was alluding to in his article that wildlife somehow has to be travelled to, packaged and delivered in a controlled way, to order. Children need to explore right outside their door. They need to learn to assess risks for themselves. They need to learn how to learn for themselves. They need to experience the wonder of a new discovery. They simply need to be outside.