Growing up in a small working-class village community in rural Derbyshire I took for granted the immense adventure playground on my doorstep: the woods I roamed with my sister, the fields in which we picked armfuls of buttercups and looked for toads, the hedges we made our dens, the stream we damned in so many different ways, the trees we climbed to hide from the farmer who didn’t like us trespassing on his land, the different routes we found around the village to escape the stones the big boys would throw at us.

This is the sort of childhood many of my generation will remember whether it be roaming parks and canals in cities or the fields and woods of the countryside. There were no mobile phones to aid our communication and very few of us wore watches yet we still managed to meet up with friends to play, wander, adventure and hang around with and somehow we always managed to be home in time for tea.

Yes – there were fallings-out, there were lost wellies in muddy fields, there were fallings out of trees, wet clothes from slippy river banks, scratches from hedgerows, fear of the farmer and the bully boys of the village but, without any planning on behalf of our teachers and parents, we were learning. Learning skills of social co-operation, team work, risk taking, planning, communication as well as developing our creativity through the games we invented, the dens we built, the streams we diverted, the pictures we made from flowers, the stories we made up, the role play we lost ourselves in. We were also developing our curiosity in the world around us and a sense of awe and wonder in the natural environment. And, again, unknown and unplanned, our health and well-being was sustained with huge doses of fresh air and exercise and a physical connection to Nature.

But many of today’s children seem to be losing this ability to play at younger and younger ages and though they may be amazing at ballet or gym or flute or football or whatever club it is they are doing after school. Though they may be able to find their way around any computer or mobile device given to them and score extraordinarily high points on X-box games, we have a generation of graduates who, companies are claiming, are unemployable, a generation of teenagers who are losing the art of face-to-face communication, children who do not understand risk and a nation of depressed and anxious teenagers.

It is accepted that babies and very young children learn through play and through discovery of the world around them. Go on a walk with a toddler and make sure you let them lead the way and the activities along the way. The chances are you won’t get very far but you will really begin to notice the detail of what surrounds you as stones are picked up and turned over, grasses inspected, mud poked at, hedges peered into, drains peered down, pebbles collected, leaves rustled, sticks rearranged.

Young children have an innate sense of awe and wonder and a natural connection to their environment as well as a natural ability to play which teaches them to communicate, to learn about risk, to socialise, to make decisions for themselves, to co-operate and to think creatively.

Yet this ability to play creatively with natural resources seems to be being lost at younger and younger ages until at secondary level it has all but disappeared. Once children reach secondary school curriculum targets constrain teachers and pupils alike leaving little time for outdoor play and freedom and thus destroying creativity and independent thought.

Which is why on the Eve of the General Election 2015 people gathered in a School Hall in South Devon to watch the film Project Wild Thing and debate the reasons why this generation of children are becoming so disconnected from nature and outdoor play and to what extent we should all be concerned about this.

Jonathan Dimbleby and panelists, including Project Wild Thing director David Bond

Chaired by Jonathan Dimbleby the panel included the film-maker himself, David Bond, as well as representatives from Play England, the Wildlife Trust, the Council for Learning outside the classroom, Exeter and Plymouth Universities, the National Trust and an extraordinarily eloquent 20-year old representing young people. Although one member of the audience declared part way through the evening that the debate had completely made up her mind as to whom she was going to vote for the following day the purpose of the evening was not specifically to influence voters and the date on which we gathered was purely coincidental.

Brainstorming the big picture after the film

Interestingly, though, issues of party politics and government decisions were raised as having established that we were all very concerned about young people’s disconnect from their natural world we progressed to discuss who should take responsibility for reconnecting this generation to their environment. The answer seems to be that we all need to take on that responsibility whether we are parents, teachers, health workers, play workers or Government Ministers.

We can start by modelling the change we want to see so put aside that long 'to-do' list and go outside to play in your own natural playground, whether that be a City Park, a local wood, a garden, allotment or beach. Allow yourself some time to wonder and marvel at the world around you and to experience the transformative power of Nature. Then go and ask your local school why the children are sitting down inside for such long periods of time and being denied the spirit of adventure, freedom and closeness to nature that they need.

It may help to tell them that a recent study showed that 80% of successful entrepreneurs were tree climbers...

~ Guest blog, by Laura Hetherington


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