Wild Things: reconnecting kids and nature

This is a longer posting than normal as it appeared in the November/December issue of The Bath and Wiltshire Parent magazine.

“Seeing thirty kids running wild is a wonderful sight. They are all in their element, rosy cheeked with almost limitless sources of energy; running, climbing, hiding and making. This was the scene at a birthday party in the hidden world of Mike’s Meadow, a parcel of land attached to Batheaston Primary School. Used as a place for the Forest School it can be hired out and one of the departing parents neatly summed up the experience – ‘this was the best party that my son has ever been too’.

Kids have a special connection with the outdoors, giving them a real sense of freedom and allowing their imagination to run wild. Hearing their laughter and the noise of them excitedly running about collecting conkers or rolling down a hill is pretty special. It’s giving them the experiences that will help equip them for the journey of life.

However, the pull of the outdoors has more competition that a generation ago. This was confirmed by an RSPB survey that showed that only one in five children has a connection with nature. The reasons that this change has happened pretty quickly are complex from the rise of screen time to more traffic on the roads.

It feels like change is in the air and that Bath and Wiltshire is at the heart of this movement for reconnecting kids with nature. More schools than ever before are running Forest Schools (they have exploded in popularity in a couple of years), outdoor clubs during school holidays are really popular and den building events sell-out almost as quickly as tickets for Glastonbury.

Steve Sutherland set up Hidden Woods three years ago hoping to recreate the experiences that he had in his childhood for today’s kids. Set across 80 acres of ancient woodland it’s a place that kids can roam free, get muddy knees and get that little bit close to nature.

Steve explains: “There’s a growing awareness of the importance of unstructured outdoor play on children’s development. Whilst the research suggests that today’s children spend much less time doing so than their grandparents did, our experience at Hidden Woods is that they’re always stimulated by the environment and instinctively know how to entertain themselves away from all the screens and modern day distractions.

“We regularly observe the benefits that such rich child-led experiences deliver – greater self-confidence, improved communication and physical skills to name but a few. It’s a real privilege to be facilitating and sharing such powerful experiences in our wonderful natural playground.”

Parents always want what is best for their children and the evidence is stacking up that time spent outdoors and in nature is a key way to help kids grow.

Teachers, GP’s, play experts, local authorities and politicians are also seeing the wider benefits of outdoor time for children.

Time playing outdoors can improve children’s physical activity rates fourfold compared to playing formal sport. Playing in green space helps to reduce children’s blood pressure and enhance their physical development, a counter to the more sedentary lifestyle associated with screen time. Perhaps the most compelling stat is then three-quarters of children feels happiest when playing outside, helping them to connect with the natural environment and sleep well after all of that fresh air.

Teacher Sally Searby runs the weekly wild and muddy club and organises forest schools at St Stephen’s Primary School in Bath. These hugely popular outdoors sessions help kids experience den building, climbing trees and making fires in a safe environment – giving them skills that will last a lifetime.

Sally Searby explains: ‘Forest Schools are all about exploring and experiencing the natural world through practical activities. The activities that take place build on a child’s innate motivation and positive attitude to learning, offering them the opportunities to take risks, make choices and initiate learning for themselves.”

It’s not just formal learning where change is happening. Bath and North East Somerset is one of two councils in the UK to adopt the risk-benefit approach to play. This new model is about looking at both the risks and benefits. Jeremy Dymond, who has over-seen work on play in the city, says: “Children have a natural tendency to explore, have fun and take risks. This is a part of growing up and something we all want to encourage safely. Safety should not equal boring.”

The council has designed a toolkit to help people working with children to make play fun and exciting and weigh up the benefits of being active, creative, out in nature, and the improved health and wellbeing that this would offer, set against the real, yet reasonably low risks of playing outdoors.

Luckington Community School in Wiltshire has recently revived its playground with three beautiful tepees surrounded by wildflowers, creating a magical place for children’s imagination to run wild. Schools across the county are being supporting by the County Council as part of its Outdoor Play Project – showing how local authorities, with the support of local communities, can make a huge difference.

Conservation charities are also upping their game. The Avon Wildlife Trust and National Trust are both part of the Wild Network, a movement of over 1,500 organisations committed to reconnecting kids to nature and outdoor play.

Locally the Bath Skyline, much of which is managed by the National Trust, now has a fantastic natural play trail which is proving a huge hit with families. It allows kids (and parents too) to have a go at clambering, climbing and building in the woods.

I’m glad that my children have the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors as much as I do. Seeing their faces as they watch a spider in its web or their huge appetite for collecting conkers brings a smile to my face. They love being outdoors, like all children do, having the chance to explore, the chance to engage in imaginative play and the chance to see nature close up; and it’s helped me see the world anew from their viewpoint.

So, why not give your kids the gift of wild time this Christmas. The experience of being outdoors will create an experience that will stay with them for life and there is something magical about being in the natural world with your children whether collecting treasure on a walk or finding a river to play pooh sticks.”

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