Stephen Moss is one of Britain’s leading nature writers, broadcasters and wildlife television producers. He was the founding producer of Springwatch, and his books include A Bumper Book of Nature, a guide that encourages children to explore the great outdoors. A lifelong naturalist, he is passionate about communicating the wonders of the natural world to the widest possible audience. http://www.stephenmoss.tv
Natural Childhood, a report written for the National Trust by STEPHEN MOSS, aims to kick-start a nationwide movement to reconnect our children with nature. Here, Stephen explains why he feels so passionately about the subject.
Like many readers of Mark’s blog, I am a birder and naturalist. And like many of you, my passion for wildlife goes right back to early childhood. But as a parent, it saddens me that today’s children don’t have the freedom to explore the great outdoors; a freedom we took for granted when we were growing up.
My interest in reconnecting children with nature really began a few years ago, when I read Richard Louv’s seminal book on the subject, Last Child in the Woods. Louv had realised that his own teenage sons were not indulging in the kind of unstructured outdoor play that he had taken for granted, just a generation earlier. Famously, he coined a name for this modern deprivation: ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’.
There can be no doubt that Britain’s children suffer from Nature Deficit Disorder as much as their counterparts across the Atlantic. They are more unfit, more prone to mental health problems and less able to judge risk than we were. They are also far less likely to develop an interest in the natural world. As someone who has gained so much from my passion for nature, and sees the current generation missing out, this makes me not just sad, but angry as well.
In the report I outline the state of Britain’s children today – a sedentary, indoor-based lifestyle that effectively makes them prisoners in their own homes. I look at the huge benefits of reconnecting children with nature: benefits not just for their own health and education, but also for communities and society as a whole. And I examine the barriers that stand in our way: the dangers from traffic, the misguided obsession with ‘stranger danger’, and the attitudes of over-zealous authority figures who stop children climbing trees and building dens – and who frankly should know better.
I also have a go at conservationists – at least at those who have taken the misguided attitude that when we interact with nature we should ‘take only photographs, and leave only footprints’. For me, this must rank as one of the most nonsensical mantras ever dreamed up. Children need to pick flowers, collect frogspawn, catch tiddlers and net butterflies – how else will they ever truly connect with the natural world around them?
So what can we do to solve this society-wide problem, and reconnect our nation’s children with the natural world?
This is where you come in. Rather than trying to provide all the answers, the Natural Childhood report aims to kick-start a dialogue, leading to a long-term campaign.[registration_form]
30 Replies to “Guest Blog – National Trust Natural Childhood report – by Stephen Moss”
I was born in the early 70s and didn’t wander or roam for hours as I grew up on the outskirts of London and then moved to a commuter belt town. However, I spent hours in the garden, went for walks with my parents to local woods and parks, and collected frog spawn, sticklebacks and even had a ‘pet’ slow worm for a while as it recuperated from an argument with next door’s lawn mower.
As an adult, I love the outdoors and have tried to pass this on to my children. My then 14 year old spent last summer out on his bike making ramps on the local golf course (oops) or looking for trees to climb. He would much rather be outside and ‘doing stuff’ than be inside on a computer game. My youngest son also loves to be outside, and at 7 is learning to recognise birds of prey and common garden birds. He helps me garden, and spends lots of time with me in the fields that are behind our house. He also understands why we leave edges of the garden wild, and helped get a young hedgehog up to hibernating weight and then to hibernate when he was 6.
It’s not just about disappearing for hours, but instead being shown how great the outside world is. Growing our own veggies and having a few hens means my children know where some of their food come from. Playing outside after school helps them reconnect with the outside world-and tops up their vitamin D levels!
As parents we have a duty to interact with the world outside our front door, to pull children away from the tv and games machines, at least some of the time. They are the future conservationists, rangers, or just lovers of the countryside, and their journey needs to start now!
Emma – thank you for making a great first comment on this blog.
My lads grew up on the golf course. They learnt a lot about nature there with Polecats, Stoats, Roe Deer, Buzzards, Sparrowhawks and lots more. One is a full pro now and teaches children to look up at the Red Kites flying over. The second is just starting at a golf course after travelling around most of South and North America and the third works for Sea life surveys on Mull with his own blog on nature – http://wildlifewarrior02.blogspot.co.uk/
So even golf courses can teach children about nature if they are managed well!
Great article. Yes I knew I was going to work in the environment from junior school.Our third year teacher just took us on nature walk (he probably hated being in the classroom) I was inspired, my playground was the beach and Breydon water near Great Yarmouth. I fell in dykes, caught bumble bees in hollyhocks and got stung. I collected frog spawn and put it in our garden and went it the marram grass to catch grasshoppers and listen to skylarks. Today nature has been so denuded that my son can’t do that in the wider countryside. Do nature reserves and more does the general countryside owned and managed by NT have to deliver that?. We all have an option to manage land differently and space for mud for kids to fall in, events or space to catch and release butterfly’s is essential. Respect for nature is not a bad thing we can look catch and release without a problem. I welcome the report a breath of fresh air and one that should inspire us to make nature land more accessible and make Mr Kendall perhaps explain to his members that it is ok to have some nature and young people in the countryside 😉
Horrid sweeping generalisation coming up….I find (in our area at least) the children/youths who are ‘playing’ in the outdoors unsupervised (and probably having a great time) are the ones ‘we’d’ rather not be there due to the damage they cause; on the other hand the children who we’d prefer to see are seemingly kept indoors well away from all those others.
We keep on trying to encourage all to get out, respect, observe and most of all ENJOY their environment and the animal/plants etc in it
We have a similar problem – the areas that would be great for den building or adventures are full of empty cans and bottles – and the occasional used needle – so it’s supervised walks or free range…in the garden!
A lot could be done in planning urban areas. Leave trees, bushes, ditches, little green “waste”lands, rocks, not just for children but adults too. Designers, architects, planners plan too much, builders remove everything that stands in their way when building, it’s cheaper and easier, and then they plant a tree or two with an odd bush or three; all this leaves our urban environments so neat and clinical, boring, full of straight lines. Young minds and old minds, surely, feel better in a more natural landscape, with forms and shapes not so straight and unsurprising. We can’t all live in or near woods and fields, most of us live in cities and towns, so the trees, brooks, meadows, rocks etc have to be brought to us instead of cleaned away. Parks are not enough, they too tend to be a little too planned, don’t you think?
Btw, I hear that in Germany, and at least in my native Finland there are some kindergartens/nurseries that are outdoors, not in a house, but in the woods with a tent as their headquarters. Ab fab IMO.
I know this a bit more structured than Stephen intends but in Costa Rica it is part of the curriculum that children are taught science in the rainforest so many weeks a year. I was privileged enough to see this in action and listening to 10 year olds discussing the relationship between fig trees and monkeys (albeit in Spanish) was eye opening.
As a committee member of the Friends of Warnham Local Nature Reserve, in Horsham, West Sussex, I can assure you that education and encouragement of young people are two of our aims. Nevertheless, prevention of vandalism and mindless littering are also problems. There has to be a balance between these extremes.
I have quite a few years behind me now so I can look back a long way to how I was inspired to devote my life to wildlife. I was curious about wild things as soon as I could walk and my Godfather who lived next door had an interest in the countryside and encouraged my interest. The biggest development was my form master at school who was the BTO Rep in Suffolk and he took me out birding. I used to cycle 12 miles down an A road aged 12 to meet him which is something that could not be contemplated today.
It is a huge challenge to get kids involved in modern times. It is just not safe for most children to wander where they like and explore. True the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts have been running organised events for children for years and that is commendable. I have observed these kids and their attention span is limited in a classroom situation.
We need to find a way where a child’s natural curiosity or wildlife can be sated. We need to allow them to make their own discoveries. We need mentors to point them in the right direction.
Stephen’s report for the National Trust is to be welcomed but the responsibility is on all parents, grand parents, uncles, aunts etc to think a little about teaching and encouraging all youngsters in our family to explore the wonders of nature that have so captured all of us.
I tend to agree with Stephen’s comments about collecting frogspawn and picking flowers etc. The sort of disapproval that is often expressed at that kind of activity is counter productive and inhibits the kind of childhood pursuits that fostered the love and knowledge of nature of many prominent naturalists of the past.
There is a balance to be struck but on the whole I don’t think a bit of innocent hands on interaction will lead our children into becoming ruthless egg-collecting adults but it might inspire some to become the conservationists of the future.
Good to know that someone is getting to grips with the problem, but it seems to me to be a tough nut to crack. As a parent of two teenagers I’ve been on what X Factor would call a ‘personal journey’ to address my family’s Nature Deficit Disorder and have to admit defeat.
When they were of primary school age I gave them every opportunity to have unsupervised, or only lightly supervised, outdoor play. We live in a rural village so they were able to roam around more freely than urban and suburban friends and relatives and took advantage of that freedom when they were younger.
However, since starting secondary school both of my children have drifted away from an interest in the outdoor world and joined their peers in the chosen environment of the 21st Century teen – indoors. They like to play computer games, to facebook, to tweet and to shop online. It may be a beautiful sunny day outside, but given free choice they’ll be inside with the curtains drawn (you can see the screen so much better…)
That’s one difficulty. The other has been raised by David McGrath above. ‘Nice’ parents (especially the sort of people who go to National Trust properties) don’t let their children to their own thing in the great outdoors. When you do you’re judged – other middle class parents tut and shake their heads and are ready to condemn any parent who allows their child to hurt themselves or to become a nuisance to others.
It means very few children do have the freedom I enjoyed as a 1970s suburban child and that children that do have that freedom today are the sort of kids that cause trouble – as David McGrath says.
Sorry I’ve gone on a bit. The National Trust’s current take on Nature Deficit seems to be to supply a sanitsed outdoor experience that suits the under fives, but doesn’t excite older children. Older children want a sense of hazard, a freedom to experiment and to be naughty or they’ll go where they can find those things – the online world.
Good luck with the report – I hope you get a hearing from the people can make meaningful changes.
Splendid article. Why Derek is it not safe for children to be in the great outdorrs unsupervised? It is statistically no more dangerous than when I was a child fifty years ago. All evenings, weekends and school holidays I and my younger brother we outdoors often a long long way from home playing all the games kids still play, building dens , then later frogging, fishing, picking flowers and eventually birding. Both of us still do a number of these things having been birders and naturalists since before either of us can remember, it was us that taught the adults in the family!
The best naturalists of our generation are all largely self taught. Yes we did things we shouldn’t even a little egg collecting and poaching briefly and certainly went on many occasion where we shouldn’t. Children need to explore, find their own limits, develop as independent humans, most of all learning about nature so that it sticks is a hands on experience, the little damage this may cause is worth the lifetime conservationists and nature lovers it producesl
Partly in response to Wildgardener I believe that outdoor activities such as surfing and climbing can go a long way to helping children connect with and respect nature. It is important to remember that at first they do require supervision and guidance. Once they have achieved some degree of competency young people have an opportunity to challenge and express themselves through these pursuits. They both require time spent with nature and respect for nature and they both offer the adrenaline fix many young people need. I know that not everyone has access to a good surfing beach or good climbs but I think it is worthwhile considering what lessons can be learnt from young people connecting with nature via outdoor sports
I accept what you say Paul and most of the problem is the perception caused by an overreacting media. Having said that though I do think the amount of traffic on the roads now would preclude my 12 mile cycle ride.
Do not give up hope! My own children now in their forties have both amazed me. I never pressed them to have an interest but my son Jeremy was an enthusiastic bird ringer and has continued his interest and is now an established ornithologist living in Canada. My three grandchildren are all enthusiastic about the outdoor life and a healthy interest in everything from insects to birds. On the other hand my daughter Bronwen grew up pretty uninterested in her father’s paranoia but now travels a lot in her job. I note she takes awful pictures of any birds she sees and expects instant Identification but also has recently visited two game parks in Africa and been wildly enthusiastic about what she saw.
She has also involved me considerably in feeding the incredible enthusiasm of her two young god daughters in their passion for cetaceans. Even I avoided wildlife a bit in the teenage years but soon came back to what I really cared for.
We just need to make the effort and the rewards will come.
Nice post, and some insightful comments. Worth emphasising a role for formal outdoor education too – a school ecology field course had a massive impact on my life, although by then I had already spent my childhood running / biking / swinging / climbing around outside. Well into my rather sedentary 30s I’m still benefitting from the residual fitness so gained!
Great blog Steven. I too read Richard Louv’s book and felt it encompassed everything I felt about kids losing touch with the natural world. I even wrote a blog about it at http://writesfornature.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/bringing-spring-to-life.html !
It’s so easy to confuse perceived dangers with real levels of risk. As a parent myself I inwardly hold my breath every time I let my daughter (who’s 12) go out in the fields with only a friend or two. But I do let her go – because I know it’s in her best interests. In many cases children are probably far more at risk being on a car journey than playing outside unsupervised – both from the immediate danger of a crash and the long-term threat of obesity and heart disease! In any case if everyone lets their kids play out any risk would plummet due to strength of numbers – and that also applies to the anti-social behaviour problems some commentators have pointed to.
When I was at Uni in the 70s there was a women’s campaign called ‘Reclaim the streets’ – we need to revive it now for our children as ‘Reclaim the wild’.
Thank you for writing such a thoroughly interesting and thought provoking article. I find myself agreeing with everything you have written and I’m sure I’ll enjoy reading the report in more detail, particularly if the wonderful quote from Nick Baker on p2 is anything to go by:
“You’ll never forget your first badger – just as you’ll never remember your highest score on a computer game – no matter how important it seemed at the time”
I was very fortunate to grow up on the edge of an urban fringe country park (now an LNR) which contained extensive woods, scrub and farmland. I was also doubly fortunate to have been blessed with parents that allowed me the freedom to enjoy this environment on my own terms. This meant whole days spent rampaging through the woods with my friends, making bows and arrows, building dens and treehouses and harmlessly bothering the local wildlife. From the age of 7 or 8, my mother was happy to send me off on a Saturday morning with a packed lunch and not to expect to see me again until teatime. Although the country park was owned by the local council, to my friends and I it was ours.
I can still vividly remember the burning sense of outrage we all felt when we discovered that a number of trees had been felled, for quite sound reasons as it later transpired, but to our innocent minds this was an act of pure vandalism and I can recall us all piling into the park rangers office to vociferously register our protest!
Those halcyon days instilled in me a love of nature and the outdoors that would never have been realised by structured activities or the school nature table.
I hope to allow my own children the same freedom, though I have to admit to that I too seem to have fallen victim of the ‘stranger danger’ neurosis and constantly need to remind myself that despite all the media hype, the world is no more dangerous now than it was 25 years ago.
A further thought. As I said earlier RSPB and Wildlife Trusts have been running children’s clubs and events for a number of years now. I do not know about the RSPB but I am pretty sure that the Wildlife Trusts have never done any research to see if what they have been doing is effective.
Wildlife Watch has been going for at least 20 years so it must be possible to find out how many youngsters who went through that system are still active/interested in nature conservation issues now. It seems to me essential because it would be a dreadful waste of resources if people did not continue any interest in later life.
It seems to me that maybe it is time to consider a new kind of nature reserve.
Parents percieve high levels of risk and want a ‘safe’ environment for their children to play in – yet they want them to connect with nature and enjoy the outdoors.
The outdoors has been squeezed and there is not that much frog spawn nor many butterflies left for children to catch.
Nature reserves offer a great way to connect children with nature but most simply cannot allow the sort of wild play (den buidling, flower picking etc..) that we are talking about here.
So, maybe it is time for conservation bodies, local authorities et al to acquire and designate new small scale ‘nature reserves’ – not for the conservation value as much for the chance to create ‘wild’ yet ‘safe’ spaces where families can connect with nature, run wild, picnic, roll in the meadows, pick the flowers, build dens, climb trees etc etc.
A new kind of “Natural Play Reserve”
In this fenced in, keep out, stay where I can see you, wildlife impovourished world, it might be the best compromise…
OK so back to some possible solutions:
1. A sound planning policy to ensure there is sufficient and adequate green space provision in all new housing estates for children to have free play.
2. An education policy that allows, funds and positively encourages natural play and access to the natural world in school time.
3. HLF and Big Lottery Fund to work on a joint ten year Natural Play programme that funds policy guidance (say to Play England and equivalents in other UK countries) and direct funding to support regional and local natural play projects in communities. Previous schemes such as Doorstep Greens and Access to Nature show that it can be done.
4. A more enlightened attitude by park and nature reserve managers to encourage children to play in their parks (one Country Park I know has notices up to say No Den building as it disturbs nature).
My life’s work is about getting people connected to nature, either through skills, games and activities outdoors, or storytelling.
Here is a little slideshow of ideas to inspire folks to get outdoors and have fun in nature.
Warmly, Chris Holland
Chris – welcome and thank you!
Is it too late for Stephen to respond to some of the comments? It would be interesting to hear his opinion of some of the solutions that have been posited here.
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