Climbing Trees, Not Walls

21st June 2019

Research shows that children spend less time outdoors than prison inmates. Heather Harris decodes what Nature Deficit Disorder means…

‘More children can identify a Dalek than an owl’; ‘more children are now admitted to British hospitals for injuries incurred falling out of bed than falling out of trees’ and ‘the distance our children stray from their home on their own has shrunk by 90% since the 70s’…

These are three of the facts that came out of a survey of 2,000 eight to 12-year olds for television channel Eden, back in 2010. Nearly a decade later, has anything changed? And should it?

Some people may argue that these changes in childhood pursuits are merely a sign of progress. As adults, we are no longer forced to stagger from our cave to track down the odd wild boar for lunch. Instead we can check Instagram for the latest pizza offer and order our meals one megabyte at a time. We don’t need to know how to navigate the wild.

Add to this the argument that the internet gives children more detailed imagery and information about the animal kingdom than a trip to the park or the zoo on a windy Wednesday can ever hope to do, and we’ve got nothing to worry about.

Or have we? Increasingly, respected experts in the field of medicine, mental health, sociology and education are suggesting that when children stop going out in the natural world to play, it can affect not only their individual development but society as a whole. As the Eden study reported, ‘it’s not so much what children know about nature that’s important, as what happens to them when they are in nature by themselves without grown-ups.’

I may be regressing too much into Famous Five territory here but the fact remains, many parents don’t even want their children to get dirty let alone go out on their own to the park (even though statistically the chance of a child being abducted by a stranger today remains the same as it was in the 1970s).

Writer and broadcaster Stephen Moss, one of whose specialisms is ‘getting children back in touch with nature’, echoes this. “More children than ever before are interested in the natural world [but] they watch it on the telly. Far fewer are experiencing it directly and that’s what counts… Children today are hardly allowed into the natural world at all, and never without supervision.”

It was writer Richard Louv who coined the term ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ in his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, which he wrote to explore ‘the increasing divide between the young and the natural world, and the environmental, social, psychological, and spiritual implications of that change.’ Louv also amassed research that reveals the necessity of contact with nature for healthy child—and adult—development.

‘Nature-deficit disorder, is not a medical diagnosis, Louv clarified in 2016 in an interview with Greater Good magazine, published by the University of California, Berkeley, “but a useful term – a metaphor – to describe what many of us believe are the human costs of alienation from nature: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses, a rising rate of myopia, child and adult obesity, Vitamin D deficiency, and other maladies.”

Few of us can argue with the contention that being out in the fresh air surrounded by greenery makes us generally feel better. A recent study by the University of Essex also found that ‘regular time outdoors produces significant improvements in… learning ability, creativity and mental, psychological and emotional well-being’.

There’s a huge tendency to blame the indoor lifestyle on the rise of smartphones and tablets. There’s some element of truth in this, but it’s not just technology that is (literally) screening our children from the real world. Just look at the diary of the average 2019 schoolchild: full of after-school ‘activities’ and homework. There’s little time or inclination to build dens or identify birds or collect frogspawn.

But all is not lost. In 2016, the then Environment Secretary, Liz Truss, announced that every schoolchild will have the opportunity to visit a National Park. She noted that only 10% currently had access to outdoor learning, adding “our children should be climbing trees, not the walls.” She referred also to research undertaken by Persil, which found that 74% of children spent under 60 minutes playing outside each day. That’s less time in the fresh air than set in guidelines for prison inmates.

Picking up early on this problem, the Royal Horticultural Society launched a Campaign for School Gardening in 2007. Their Chief Horticulturalist, Guy Barter, was keen to tell me that 38,000 UK schools now have signed up. Many are now adding allotments to their playing fields so pupils can grow their own vegetables and fruit. Others are simply growing all sorts of exotic flowers and vegetables in pots.

Other schools have gone a step closer to nature by building ‘outdoor classrooms’ covered in glass, so children can sit surrounded by greenery in all weathers.

The RHS is also now working with the NHS, to encourage the concept of ‘social prescribing’ – where GPs can suggest a patient joins a local wildlife or rambling group or works on a community allotment rather than takes anti-depressants.

“We have also moved our Feel-Good Garden from the Chelsea Flower Show to a mental health centre in Islington, where patients and visitors can experience the benefits of being amongst greenery,” Mr Barter explained. The 2019 Show featured a Woodland Garden, designed by HRH The Duchess of Cambridge with landscape architect Davies White, and mental health trusts were invited to apply to have it in their grounds.

There has also been a rise in the number of UK Forest Schools. As the name suggests, these are all about taking children out of the classroom; they offer ‘regular opportunities to achieve and develop confidence through hands-on learning in a woodland environment’. First introduced into the UK in the 1990s from Denmark, the concept grew faster than the average conifer and there were 140 forest schools here by 2016.

Unlike the government’s pledge to arrange ‘one off’ park visits, Forest School is ‘a long-term process of regular sessions, rather than a one-off or infrequent visit; the cycle of planning, observation, adaptation and review links each session.’

As one FS teacher explained, “I spent six weeks parallel-playing with a young girl aged four who had chosen not to speak to any adults at her nursery for six months. We painted trees with water, pretended to be birds and watched slugs and snails. In Week 6, she asked a question about ants… She spoke to me three more times during that session – and she’s still talking!”

David, aged 14, put it succinctly, “I don’t have ADHD when I’m out in the woods.”

Explaining the success of this alternative approach to education, Kim Mabey, a Leader at Chiltern Forest School – set in the heart of ancient woodland – tells me, “FS empowers children to think for themselves and build their own self-esteem. Children who struggle in the classroom come alive at FS and their vocabulary enhances as they experience changes in the weather, environment and the seasons. They work collaboratively, solving problems such as moving logs and creating dens. The feedback from parents has been amazing.”

Individual schools have to pay for pupils to visit their local Forest School for regular sessions and, not surprisingly, it is often the first thing to be cut when the budget axe swings.

“The biggest heartache,” Kim says, “is that a lot of schools don’t see the huge benefit that FS offers, underpinning the children’s learning by upping their self-esteem, resilience, communication and personal experiences of the environment rather than a book or tv.”

And also teaching them first-hand the difference between an owl and a Dr Who baddie who can’t even get up the stairs, let alone climb a tree…

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