A Kids Place in Nature

Yesterday I read an article about how the National Trust have released a list of 50 things a kid should do out in nature before they are twelve, similar to 101 things to do before you die fads that went round a few years ago, as well as the regular 100 books to read, which no-one really could before the next (and different) list came out. The list for kids in nature is a good thing in some ways because it encourages kids to get out of the house, away from the computer screen and experience other parts of their local world, but the fact they even needed a list worries me.
It worries me because I never needed a list, 20 odd years ago I often wandered into the woods near my house and just made my own fun, it wasn’t structured by my parents, it wasn’t a to do list of childhood, it was just creative imaginative play. It worries me because just like microwave food in a post-ration post-housewife world left many people not knowing how to cook, we could be seeing similar shifts with our attitude to nature. Life without nature has left people not knowing how awesome nature is.

Here are some of the problems with modern society and nature, as I see them:

  • We don’t trust anyone. When I was a child of course my parents cared and warned me that not everyone was nice: they gave me a set of instructions if I was ever in trouble, but they did not discourage me from exploring, getting to know people, and getting to know my surrounding without them. I do feel that the number of paedophiles and rapists, although looks higher and more likely because the media pushes it down our throat every other day, doesn’t exist in higher numbers than a century ago. The difference is our communities have changed, we don’t know everyone in our town, we don’t look after each others’ children regularly, and we don’t live, work, and die in the same place our families have been for centuries. This is really going against all the safety structures our ancestors set up – tribes, groups and families of people stuck together and protected each other, they had a similar moral compass. They cared for their young and their elders because it’s what was done. Your family rarely moved away like they do now. I do think that because of our constantly shifting locations of work, living, friendships, plus the addition of internet communication (including this blog), we don’t get to know our neighbours, or many of the people we actually share life with. We don’t buy food from a butcher who also happens to be a family friend, we buy it from a big brand supermarket. And because we don’t know people, and because they media warns us against those we don’t know, and because we often just don’t have the time to change it, we don’t trust people. They could steal from you, con you, murder you, rape you, or abuse your children. Lovely picture of “civilisation” right? If you don’t trust people, why on earth would you allow your children to go outside, where “other people” are?
  • We know too much. Now I’m not remotely saying that education is a bad thing, education is an amazing thing that is good for everybody and encompasses a number of trades, subjects and passions. Education is good. However, a hypochodriac can’t complain that they have cancer/enter deadly illness here/are about to die if they don’t know the symptoms in the first place. Although I’m not suggesting we are all hypochrondriacs (although there’s a decent theory to prove otherwise) we do constantly self-diagnose our situations. We see dirt and think germs, we see rusty metal and think tetanus, we see bugs and think bites and stings that might kill us, we see animals and think fleas, we in general don’t seem to be able to distinguish nature from unclean. Cleanliness means killing everything in a particular area and then we might be safe. The fact that King Henry VIII treated his child like this and the child (Edward) died very young most likely because he didn’t have any immune system to fight off the really common things like colds doesn’t seem to be spoken of much. Those “Kills 99.9999…% of ALL GERMS” don’t tell you that do they! Without an immune system, built up by naturally coming into contact with the outside world, we die. End of.
  • We don’t like it. When we treat animals as food only, want to kill everything because it’s not clean, and worry that a rapist will jump out the bushes in your local park, our connotations with nature are pretty lame. I know a number of people who simply don’t like nature, would rather have concrete walls, and white-washed cabinets that can be scrubbed clean at a moments notice of a splatter of pasta sauce from the supermarket. They don’t understand the purpose of pets, and hence animals for any other reason than our own dietary/fashion enjoyment. The idea that nature needs to be respected and stewarded is contrary to their belief that really we have no need of it. And as we tend to pass on our opinions (at least a few of them) to our children, the kids end up being a little OCD, stuck to computer screens or their latest gaming device, never going outside because there’s simply nothing worth the bother. Why find adventures in the landscape when there’s a virtual one you can turn on, one in which you don’t need wellies or a coat, you don’t need to get cold or muddy, you can just turn it off when you’re bored and move onto the next war-time landscape to shoot stuff. That fact that this cuts out most sports and physical activity doesn’t matter to a generation of kids who are taught that you can buy lipo- and just pick up the fat-free bottle of Coke.

On the contrary there are massive problems with kids not getting into nature, most of which I hope you know already:

  • Virtual reality becomes the reality. There was an interesting Ted talk I saw in which a woman was really concerned about how technology is influencing the way we communicate and how we are teaching children what’s important. She used a picture of her daughter “hanging out” with her friends. The three of them were not talking, they were all on phones, in the same room, but hardly together. When we can pick and choose how we appear it gets too easy. We don’t need to talk to those who don’t agree with us online, we can simply alter our friend status without them knowing. When a reality within a computer system starts to have most of our time and energy, we are really losing the actual world, we are losing relationships, we are connected but alone. When it comes to my future children this terrifies me. I want my kids reality to be in the outside world, understanding the world from what they see touch and get involved with, and the fact I have to mention “preferably not virtual experiences” is a big issue. I shouldn’t have to opt into a REAL environment, it should be the norm.
  • They don’t learnt the basic survival stuff that comes naturally in nature. By jumping and running and climbing kids test out their own abilities. These abilities centuries ago would have been what kept them alive, their physical skills would have saved them if a flood was coming, if there was a fire, or a beast was after blood, or even war. Running through a forest jumping over the obstacles in your path takes more focus and skill than pressing a few buttons at the right time on a game remote. One day, God forbid, we might be in a situation, a desperate awful situation, where we will need those key survival skills. If they have been bred out of us we could be in big trouble. There are dozens of TV celebrities who have made survival games interesting for those sitting on the sofa. Unfortunately, the truth is these shows wouldn’t be a fraction as popular as they are if we were out doing some of the things our grandparents did with their time when they were kids. Finding berries – a light snack; making a shelter – a cool kid’s hiding place; swimming in the river – the natural pool to chill out in a hot summer’s day. Nature is pretty fun and educational all at the same time. Woop!
  • They don’t gain a respect for the world, and nature. When nature is something to be cleaned off the counter top or scrubbed off your shoes it becomes something worthless. When you treat nature as worthless two things happen: firstly, you become stupidly arrogant and ignorant about how you survive without the farmers who grow and nurture your food, or the sources of the medicine like penicillin which came from nature. Secondly you start feeling completely OK about species going extinct, building blocks of flats over nature reserves, and concreting over beautiful landscapes. We see this everywhere, particularly from big cooperations which have enough money to silence anyone who complains. It is far more likely that an adult who enjoyed the country and their adventures within it will protect those environments, than someone who was taught it’s better to sanitize it.
  • They learn not to trust anyone or themselves, and the circle repeats. If a kid is taught that outside means somewhere dangerous, that a wood has mean people in, and actually the only trustworthy people are those in their own house, this causes problems. It means that their view of humanity is already working along the lines of “guilty until proven innocent” and I’m not sure anyone likes to be treated in that way. Being in nature teaches every child to be careful, of course there are pitfalls, but sometimes those pitfalls are worth the experience and the fun of the chase. That is a far more important lesson than “everyone sucks!”

When I was a kid, as I’ve already said, I was often outside. I played with my siblings, whether it be building dens, football, badminton, finding newts in the pond (they weren’t too amused at this), or going “tiger hunting” at a young age with friends of the family (little did I know that the UK doesn’t have wild tigers). It was exciting and I enjoyed wandering through the woods, running down hills to power myself up the other side, swinging on rope swings that looked like they could break at any moment, and watching our dog bounce after rabbits he could never catch. I found out what a slow worm was (not even a worm!) not by seeing a picture in a book or going to a natural history museum, but by finding one hiding under an old tyre in our back garden and watching it dart away (so hardly slow either). On holiday we’d often find a stream or shallow river and paddle/swim and even try to catch a few fish with a jar and some string. When snow came we would plummet high-speed down frozen hills cartwheeling with our sled into thorns and bushes. I don’t remember the scratches, I remember the fun. Then there was the summer storm which poured gorgeous warm rain as my sister and I danced around in it, jumping a little at the lightning. I know I gained scratches and still have a few scars, but I wouldn’t swap any of them – they contain memories of experiences I treasure and would love to see others enjoy too.

In comparison my husband didn’t have much of that. No pets, and grew up disliking most animals, slime, mud, dirt, sweat, etc. He’s now a techie – and a good one – but one who I had to convince to have plants in our flat. Now I’m not saying he’s less than me or generally a bad person, I’m really not. I would say that our attitudes to life took a few arguments to work out. It took a decent while for him to be OK with my families Collie Dog who flipping adores him because he now gives her far more attention than the rest of us. He found a labra-doodle who belongs to a friend of ours and they also became good friends. He is more likely to let her lick him than I am. I do feel he is gradually softening to it, but it is strange for me to watch. To me it came naturally, bugs were nothing to worry about, dirt could be washed off so it didn’t matter if you got muddy, and an adventure was more fun than frightening. I don’t need my iPhone to feel safe when I’m out; he wouldn’t ever leave it behind. I like wandering without a direction; he likes to know where he is so will stare at the screen of the GPS more than out at the landscape. I would one day love to be able to plant and grow vegetables, possibly with a chicken; lets just say I’m working on him.

A kid needs to be able to explore. It aids imagination, creativity, health and mental well-being. We were not made to sit indoors only ever seeing the world through a pane of glass or a screen. We were made to be part of that world, part of the nature, stewarding and enjoying every morsel of it respectfully, with care and hope that it’ll be there for generations to come. I would suggest that if, as an adult, you haven’t done most of the things on this list, you need to get out and purposefully see how many you could do by the end of a day. You will be mucky, tired, aching and exhilarated. I don’t just think nature is for kids, but if you didn’t get a chance then you should, if you have kids, why not take them along for the ride!

Is it bad that even the national trust are offering a free computer game if kids go outside? *hits head against wall* DOH!

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