Getting Kids Back to Nature
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With new research showing that fewer children are enjoying the natural world, there’s a new onus on conservation organisations, local authorities and natural attractions to encourage more young people back to nature.
This article will give an insight into how they can achieve this by looking at:
- how some organisations are ‘thinking outside the box’ to encourage young people to take a greater interest in the natural world
- the types of support and funding that is available through national campaigns
- the growing popularity of farm visits and Forest Schools
- whether children are still over-protected even when they do go outdoors
- the importance of marketing to young people.
Earlier in 2009 Natural England, the Government body responsible for conserving and enhancing the natural environment, released the results of a new survey, Childhood and Nature: Changing Relationships with Nature Across Generations. It compared the way in which today’s children spend their free time, with the experiences of their parents.
The online survey was undertaken in March 2009, and 1150 adults and 502 primary school children took part, representative of the UK population. Adults were split into two age groups – under 50 years old and 51 plus –
to explore the extent to which differences might exist between the generation who could be parents and the generation who are more likely to be grandparents of children aged 7-11.
The results reveal that woodlands, countryside and parks have become out of bounds to a generation of ‘cotton wool kids’ with fewer than 10% playing in such places.
Yet the survey also showed that nature-based activities, such as pond dipping and tree climbing are enjoyed by children when they can take part, and that 81% of children wanted more freedom to play outdoors.
It also revealed that 85% of adults would like their children to play outdoors more often, but cited road safety and concern about strangers as reasons for not giving them this freedom.
As Poul Christensen, acting Chair for Natural England explains: ‘Children are being denied the fundamental sense of independence and freedom in nature that their parents enjoyed. Our research shows that contact with nature has halved in a generation, and that the overwhelming majority of children now want more opportunities to play outdoors.
‘At a time when an appreciation of environmental challenges has never been more important, we need a step change in reversing the damaging trends of recent years whereby children have been denied the chance to play freely outdoors.’
But there is more to playing outside than increasing children’s knowledge of wildlife. Child psychologist, Professor Tanya Byron, commenting on similar research carried out by the National Trust says:
'Everyone knows about the health benefits of exercise and the problems of obesity that we as a nation are facing.
What’s perhaps more important, however, is the fact that the less children play outdoors, the less they learn to cope with the risks and challenges that they will go on to face as adults in everyday life.
Nothing can replace what children gain from the freedom and independence of thought they have when trying new things out in the open. '
The Natural England survey was produced to mark the launch of ‘One Million Children Outdoors’ programme 
, which aims to introduce a million children to the natural world over the next three years.
Natural England’s chief executive Helen Phillips explains:
'It’s an ambitious programme but one which is set to give impetus to the groundswell of support around the need to get kids back to nature. We’re hoping that a wide range of organisations and businesses will become involved to help support the campaign and spread the word.
There is also growing concern amongst MPs for greater access for children too, with an Early Day Motion now tabled in Parliament calling for a co-ordinated campaign to encourage young people to visit the countryside, which has already gained strong support from all three main parties.
According to Mike Platt, chief executive of the Northumberland Wildlife Trust, the simplest way to attract young people back to nature is to make the great outdoors more attractive.
Platt feels new hooks and new ways are needed to get new generations involved in environmental education. He's an advocate of employing technology to inspire younger people, as they are familiar and comfortable with digital technology.
Britain’s 47 local wildlife trusts are at the forefront of this type of education, developing innovative and fun ways in which to spark children’s imagination.
In Northumberland, the Wildlife Trust lends digital cameras to children and their families as a way of capturing wildlife on film at home or in the school grounds. They’ve also introduced interactive web maps so that people can record what they’ve seen.
The Warwickshire Wildlife Trust have also deployed the latest technology. Its Living Roots project involves children from inner city Birmingham visiting the Trust’s reserves to make backing tracks using natural sounds. These are then used in short films which will appear on the group’s own You Tube Channel.
Music was also the focus of a project carried out in the National Forest, which sprawls across 200 square miles in the East Midlands. Working with the regional sinfonia VIVA, local schools explored the woodlands around them for natural inspiration to write their own songs and music, which were then performed at a gala evening in the forest.
And according to Sophie Churchill, chief executive of the National Forest Company, this had the knock-on of encouraging families and their children to re-visit the forest for days out. ‘Children are often the way into wider appreciation of the forest by families and parents,’ she says.
But while Platt understands the merits of modern technology, he’s also quick to stress that there is ‘no substitute for what we call earth education, which is really hands-on and an all round experience for all the senses’. He points out that activities like led walks and pond dipping are still as relevant as ever, but sometimes there is a need for a new ‘in’ to capture the interest in younger people.
In other words, organisations need to think ‘outside of the box’ and try and get inside the mindset of young people. For example, in Warwickshire, the Wildlife Trust has built its own Roman Roundhouse. The Trust’s Jo Preston explains:
'The idea is that we get kids into a living history environment. So here’s a house that your ancestors would have lived in, but how would they have lived off the land? How sustainable would they have been?
Visits give children the chance to forage in the woods for food, as well as make cold water dyes from forest flowers and, with the aim of inspiring boys very much in mind, learn how woodland plants were used to treat wounds from the battlefield.
In Norfolk, the wildlife trust has used its local surroundings to great effect, launching two new education boats earlier this summer. The boats will offer a new view of the broads at both Ranworth and Hickling, sites which are already visited by over 3,000 children a year.
Elsewhere, Gwent Wildlife Trust runs a project called Wildlife Warriors, aimed at giving children between 11 and 17 a more hands-on experience of nature with a range of activities from mountain biking and shelter building, to bird ringing (identifying birds by capturing and placing a numbered ring on their leg then releasing them back into the wild).
Other Trusts, notably the Scottish Wildlife Trust, have been quick to link up children with rare and interesting animals on their 'patch' such as the recently re-introduced beaver, with school children already taking part in organised tours.
And several have developed youth forums to find out exactly what young people want them to provide.
The National Trust is also inspiring young people to think about their local environment. Their research shows that 79% of today’s children want to get outside more and last summer, to help them do this, they launched their own campaign to get 100,000 families to go wild.
More than 1,000 specific ‘wild child’ events, from bat walks to learning how to draw wildlife and scarecrow making, were designed to encourage children’s interest in local wildlife.
A Summer Roadshow also visited key cities across England to raise awareness of the campaign, and the Trust published a list of ‘Ten things to do before you’re 10’  as a challenge to families to recreate some of their wilder childhood memories with their children.
Organisations looking to rekindle children’s love of nature can also link into national campaigns, such as Natural England’s Access to Nature .
The programme funds projects which encourage people from all backgrounds to understand, access and enjoy the natural environment, and is backed by £25 million from the Big Lottery Fund.
Projects such as The South Essex People and Wildlife Programme have already received funding of £500,000 which is being used by the RSPB to deliver a creative programme aimed at inspiring local communities.
It includes an innovative scheme to ‘employ’ local young people to interpret their local environment. Acting as ‘peer champions’, their work will then be showcased in schools and local libraries to encourage other young people to get involved.
Elsewhere in Lincolnshire, £96,000 has been awarded to set up Wheely Natural, a project that offers disabled young people the chance to enjoy the great outdoors on specially adapted bikes.
According to Alan Finnigan from Foresight, the charity running the scheme: ‘although there are green spaces on their doorstep these young people don’t actually get a chance to go out and look around them.’
Funding from Natural England is also available to farmers who want to encourage visits to their land.
The popularity of farm visits is growing, and last June more than 150,000 people visited 450 farms on Open Day Sunday.
Farms which operate as part of Natural England’s Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) Educational Access scheme  can also claim payments for each visit, as well as funding to develop on-site facilities such as classrooms and washing facilities, and to take the two day Countryside Educational Visit Accreditation Scheme (CEVAS) training course.
George Eaton has been welcoming school trips to his award winning Rectory Farm in Buckinghamshire for around ten years, and the payments he receives through HLS are a welcome income stream.
His advice to other farmers looking to start educational visits is to begin slowly, perhaps with small groups of younger children, before working up to larger groups of older school children.
He also believes it’s important to make use of what’s around you, which in his case means he can supplement his talks on agriculture and food production with pond dipping sessions, river studies along the Great Ouse which runs through the farm, and wild flower trails in some of the large margins that he leaves around the edge of all his fields.
Natural England’s Richard Cooke, who heads up the range of access schemes available through HLS, explains:
'There’s a growing awareness of the value to kids of getting them out of the classroom and back into the great outdoors and we’re particularly keen for farms on the urban fringe to become involved as a way of introducing more inner city children to nature.'
The value of learning in the great outdoors is also a core value of forest schools (www.forestschools.com). The Institute of Outdoor Learning, one of several organisations that run the schools in the UK, estimates that 150,000 children take part in them each year.
The schools involve using the great outdoor setting as a classroom to teach the whole of the National Curriculum, not just environmental education. But rather than one-off visits, schools need to buy in to running them as long-term development programmes, with children visiting on a weekly basis.
According to Susannah Podmore, Forest Education Initiative (www.foresteducation.org/forest_schools.php) co-ordinator for England at the Forestry Commission: ‘The key criteria is to have someone who is trained and can take children out into the outdoors and know what they are doing.’
Currently the onus is on individual schools to send a member of staff on the relevant training course but Podmore believes that the best way forward is for more local authorities to follow the lead of councils such as those in Shropshire and Oxfordshire, and employ their own Forest School co-ordinators. She explains  that kids benefit hugely and that children who may be a nuisance or a problem in the classroom come outside and often become the team leaders.
The research also shows that Forest Schools particularly benefit children who don’t regularly get outside: Podmore says:
'It’s a very new environment for them, so they listen much more closely and then take those listening skills back into the classroom. They develop a sense of ownership too and in Oxfordshire they found that the children wanted to take their parents back to show them their Forest School sites. I don’t know any child who hasn’t enjoyed it, they just love being outside, they love the freedom.'
On the High Weald in Sussex, Chris Yarrow has been running Wilderness Wood (www.wildernesswood.co.uk) with his wife Anne for 30 years. The wood has been recognised as a Centre of Excellence by the Forestry Commission, and has a string of Green Tourism awards too.
Around 100 schools visit each year but by far the most popular activity at the wood is the Castaway children’s party, when up to 16 children are taken down into the woods to learn how to build shelters, light fires and cook outdoors.
Yarrow also allows barbecues on the site. ‘It’s great just being able to light a fire and cook food in beautiful surroundings rather than your own back garden. And we get parties, particular ethnic minorities… coming down in big family groups.’
Yarrow also believes that structured events are needed rather than opening the place and letting children do what they like. He feels it should be organised as children need leadership.
Or do they? Author and naturalist Stephen Moss thinks not. He is championing the idea that nature reserves and the like could attract even more young people if they were to leave them to their own devices.
He is concerned about the fact that children don’t go out on their own and do things. His most recent book, The Bumper Book of Nature, sets out to inspire families to get back outdoors.
His view is that the more things are laid out and organised for children, the more it’s signposted and the more it’s an interactive experience, the less they get out of it:
'Kids have to discover nature on their own and be allowed to run free, but a lot of nature reserves are very reluctant to do this, partly because they think it will worry the wildlife and partly because they are worried about being sued.'
Moss concedes that concerns over child safety are understandable but he urges local authorities and the people that run nature reserves to stand back a bit.
He advises them to create a trail that children can go round but that doesn’t feels controlled or imposed by adults. As Digby Jones (the former chairman of the CBI) said: ‘how will children learn to run a small business in the future if they’ve never learnt to climb a tree?’.
The ways in which the natural world is marketed to groups such as young people is also important.
It’s a subject that was covered in Outdoors for All?, a Defra report which formed the basis for an action plan to increase the number of people from under-represented groups, such as children, who access the natural environment.
It found that not all groups felt confident in accessing the outdoors, even when they wanted to do so, while many of the organisations that actually provide recreational opportunities lacked the confidence to engage with new customers.
However, the report also found that once many of these people had tasted the experience, they wanted more.
In the National Forest, Sophie Churchill has adopted a commitment to make sure that children from as wide a range of backgrounds as possible come to the Forest, particularly from cities and urban areas.
From a schools perspective, she says:
'What you need to do is show how you are going to meet the learning needs of those groups but add something a bit wacky and a bit different as well. So something may contribute to the curriculum but the children are also having this amazing hands on experience at the same time.'
The National Forest also runs an open-top bus service during the summer which tours the major towns within the forest boundary, acting as both a mobile advert and a way of transporting visitors from site to site.
Lucy Bendon, social campaigns manager at the National Trust, says they have invested heavily in their online engagement, especially with
primary school children.
‘We’ve created a trusted place (www.wild-child.org.uk) that parents feel comfortable with their children looking at. But we also had to be quite clever about the mechanism because it needs to promote outdoor activity, so if it's too engaging, children will sit for hours playing games indoors and it would completely defeat the object.’
The result was The Challenge, which asks children what they’ve done outside and then gives them a ‘wild rating’, so the more they do, the higher the rating they get.
The Trust is also using social networking sites such Facebook and Twitter to begin to communicate with a new teenage audience.
Organisations can also market their events for free through the BBC's Natural England Breathing Places Event Finder (www.breathingplaces.org/public).
Children of today are probably more disconnected from the natural world than any previous generation. Natural England’s report showed that less than a quarter of children now visit a local green space on a weekly basis, half the number of their parent’s generation.
Helen Phillips, Chief Executive of Natural England believes that ‘unless we reconnect children with nature it is unlikely they will come to cherish value and take action to protect the natural environment as adults. Failure to do this is likely to result in wider social costs that come from increased health care and social exclusion’.
There is clear evidence that many national bodies are seizing the moment and addressing the need to encourage children back outdoors. However in relation to the scale of the challenge these are modest contributions but nevertheless signal an important first step.
As Bendon says: ‘There seems to be a cultural shift, coinciding with the recession, to do with rediscovering very authentic, real experiences that are non-consumerist. They’re about the simple pleasures in life, such as being outdoors, or standing on a mountain and looking at a beautiful view.’
And at the same time research also shows that children enjoy being outdoors and love the freedom that a trip to the woods can brings.
As a result, organisations need to:
- embrace new technology, although not at the expense of traditional hands-on experiences.
- investigate what funding and help is available through national campaigns such as One Million Children Outdoors, Breathing Places and Access to Nature
- try to avoid being over-protective so that young people can learn about risk
- realise that children can often be the catalyst to encourage whole families to return to the great outdoors on a regular basis.
As Helen Phillips says: ‘Our ambition is that by working together with partners we can help create the world’s largest outdoor learning service, offering all school children the chance to participate in outdoor learning activities in their back garden and local green space to farms, Country Park, National Nature Reserves, National Parks and beyond to the coast and mountainsides across England.’
If your business or organisation is interested in becoming involved in the One Million Children Outdoors’ programme, please contact Natural England’s Manager of their Outdoor Learning Programme, Jim.Burt@naturalengland.org.uk
Mark Hillsdon is a freelance writer based in Manchester with a passion for the great outdoors. As well as writing on nature and the countryside for magazines such as Coast, Country Walking and Green Futures, he also works for several environmental organisations, helping to promote their work to a wider audience. He writes on travel for publications such as the Independent on Sunday and CNN Traveller, and general features for Esquire. He has also written several books on a diverse range of subjects from gardening to Chelsea Football Club via bug hunting.