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At Kent College Prep in Pembury they are very fortunate to be situated in such a beautiful setting surrounded by the varying delights of nature. They have sheep grazing in the field next door, the sound of the greater spotted woodpecker hammering its beak against the tree trunk, the smell of wild garlic in the woods and the taste of strawberries picked from the nearby fruit farm.
These sights, sounds and smells are a familiar part of the day to day life at KC Prep, but they do not forget that there are many children who do not have the same opportunities to engage with nature. According to a 2008 National Trust survey, one in three children cannot identify a magpie; half cannot tell the difference between a bee and a wasp; and yet nine out of ten could recognise a Dalek.
Today, the average child’s bedroom is an entertainment centre: the focus of their social lives. Here they can access the outside world via their mobile phone, TV or computer screen; or immerse themselves in a beguiling fantasy world of computer games. Why would they ever need to venture outdoors again?
When looking for the reasons why today’s children no longer engage with the natural world, the blame may be pinned on this screen based lifestyle. But technology can bring many benefits to children, not least the ability to access information about the natural world on the internet though websites and apps.
And while it would be easy to draw the conclusion that the lure of this screen-based entertainment is the main reason children rarely go outdoors, it is also the result of growing social anxiety about children being allowed to play outside of the home.
The distance a child strays from their home on their own has shrunk by 90% since the 1970s. 43% of adults think that children should not play outdoors unsupervised until the age of 14, and more children are now admitted to hospitals for injuries caused by falling out of bed than falling out of trees.
Free and unstructured play in the outdoors boosts problem-solving skills, focus and self-discipline. Socially it improves cooperation, flexibility and self-awareness. Emotional benefits include reduced aggression and increased happiness.
Nature is a tool to get children to experience not just the wider world but themselves. Climbing a tree is about learning how to take responsibility for yourself, and crucially, how to measure risk for yourself. Falling out of a tree is a very good lesson in risk and reward.
The less children play outdoors, the less they learn to cope with the risks and challenges they will go on to face as adults. Nothing can replace what children gain from the freedom and independence of thought they have when trying new things out in the open.Children who don’t learn to take risks become adults who don’t take risks.
Ask anyone over 40 to recount their most treasured memories of childhood and few will be indoors. 21% of today’s children regularly play outside, compared with 71% of their parents. Research shows that fewer than one in ten of today’s children have played in a wild place compared to half of their parents’ generation.
Children need to be given confidence and skills to go into a wood and build a den or climb a tree. The outdoors is a treasure trove, rich in imagination. Here, children set their own challenges, assess their own risks, take control, have their own adventures and learn from them.
The natural world is highly complex, with lots of places to hide and explore; it is untidy, which may be off-putting for adults, but adds to its attraction for children; and above all it is dynamic, varying from day to day, season to season and year to year.
Of course being outdoors can also confront children with less enjoyable experiences: being frightened, getting cold and wet, and even sometimes being hurt. But the alternative is that children grow up without ever encountering these ‘difficult’ things, and enter the adult world unprepared for the challenges it might bring.
In the longer term, continued regular contact with nature brings an increased level of satisfaction with life in general. A recent National Trust survey revealed that 80% of the happiest people in the UK said that they have a strong connection with the natural world, compared with less than 40% of the unhappiest.
Of course no natural environment is completely free from risk. But these risks are a fundamental part of childhood: by gradually learning what is safe and what is dangerous, especially with regard to their own actions and behaviours, children develop their own ‘risk thermostat’. Climbing a tree is a good example: it may be easy to climb up, but the child may realise that getting down is rather more difficult. The experience has taught them an important lesson about their own limits, and the risks they are prepared to take. But if children are shielded from any possibility of being in a risky situation, how will they ever know what their safe limits are?
In the words of Fiona Danks and Jo Schofield, authors of Nature’s Playground: 'Life is full of risk, so the best way to prepare children for life is to ensure they know how to judge risk for themselves.'
A promotion by the National Trust advertising their latest campaign said: "50 things to do before you are 11 ¾” to try to get children to engage with nature.
Climb a tree
Roll down a really big hill
Camp out in the wild
Build a den
Skim a stone
Run around in the rain"
So, nature rocks! Grass stains rule and rain drenched hair is good for you. Getting 'green-time' promotes positive emotions and natural curiosity – something technology cannot do! Time spent in nature can make us feel more alive.
A healthy dose of vitamin 'green space' is ideal therapy and best of all it is free. It provides an instant energy boost, improved mental outlook and improved cognitive focus for all ages.
Why don’t you try a few new things on this list this weekend? Enjoy being outdoors with your family - it really will be worth it.