Category Archives: Den building

Swallows and Amazons 2.0

Seeing all of the posters promoting the new ‘Swallows and Amazons’ film made me think how much the ability of children to roam free will have changed since the book was published in 1930.

December 023

Kids need their nature time and once they get a taste for it they are hooked

Barely a week goes by without new stats being published about kids spending less time outdoors than ever before and the impact that this will have on their well-being and the skills needed for life. If Arthur Ransome were alive today would his equivalent book be all about a group of kids marooned in their bedroom playing minecraft for weeks on end with little or no connection with the outside world.

You could argue that Ransome’s vision of a ideal summer spent mucking about on an island in a beautiful lake in Cumbria is a Utopian vision that never really existed. However, reams of research shows that children’s connection with the natural world and spent time outdoors has diminished drastically in the last couple of generations.

I spent alot of time outdoors when growing up. Every time I went out to play my Mum would ask me to make sure that I was home by tea time. I disappeared off into the countryside and had amazing adventures with my friends. This was only in the 1980s and yet it feels very different today. There are a plethora of barriers that have led to children becoming almost invisible playing outdoors or in local parks.

And yet it doesn’t have to be this way. Why shouldn’t every child have a right to the kinds of experience that the children in Swallows and Amazons had, where ever they live in the UK, and that millions of Britons had when they were growing up? I don’t want to be part of the last really free-range generation.

The brilliant thing is that once kids get a sniff of the outdoors they’re hooked. Children have that deeply natural sense of adventure and thirst for learning (something that seems to be educated out of many people). The boom of the Forest School movement and the rise of campaign’s by charities such as the National Trust and Wildlife Trust is making a difference. Places on den-building days or adventure courses will often sell-out as quickly as tickets for Glastonbury.

I know from my two children that they love nothing better than wandering through a wood, playing in a stream or hunting for crabs in a rock pool. We need to unleash that inner wild child in every kid and let them discover the simple joy of being outside.

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Made in Britain: a den-building revolution

Barely a week, and sometimes a day, goes past, without a new report about children in the UK losing touch with the natural world.

Kids need their nature time and once they get a taste for it they are hooked

Kids need their nature time and once they get a taste for it they are hooked

Despite the best efforts of a lot of people it seems as though the long-term trend isn’t looking good. This could be a generation of children that has little or no connection with the natural world – something that feels shocking to say as I write.

The spontaneity of playing outdoors for hour after hour has diminished pretty dramatically in no time at all. When was the last time that you saw kids playing out in the street where you live (too many cars) or a local green patch (what are they up too?)?

And yet there is I detect a glimmer of hope on the horizon. There is a very British revolution happening: people quietly going about their business, making some bold changes. No big bang, more incremental change but tapping into an apparently dormant and untapped demand for more nature time among children and families. Think about the brilliant Forest School movement and how they have become the norm for many schools with spin off’s for holidays.

Without these interventions any concept of having a wild time outdoors might pass this generation of children completely by.

People might bemoan the fact of organised events but if it sparks that interest which then cascades into family life, it is a positive step forward. Remember that barely one in five children have any sort of deep connection with the natural world and outdoor play and until the next RSPB survey we don’t know where that figure is heading – it could be north or south.

Last summer I spent a day at the beautiful Fyne Court in Somerset – helping out with Wild Wednesday. My impressions from those few hours in the sunshine have been deeply ingrained in my memory: kids fanning out across a south facing slope looking for butterflies and children racing snails. Yes it’s organised but there is no doubt in my mind this day was helping to create a sense of nature as fun and something exciting. A National Trust ranger also told me that when they advertise den-building days the phone rings off the hook a la Glastonbury festival on the day that tickets go on sale.

Kids love walking through mud in their wellies and this lovely little nature trail around Bath City Farm keeps them going

Kids love walking through mud in their wellies and this lovely little walk around Bath City Farm keeps them going

At my local city farm in Bath they have a fantastic one-mile nature trail with plenty of things to keep kids interested and they’ve recently added a little woodland play area. It’s very simple and it works drawing kids out into the green spaces where their imaginations can run wild; it gives them the confidence to try new things and have that real sense of adventure.

And never underestimate the power of children getting their friends into nature. My eight year-old daughter set up a wildlife club for her class-mates – complete with little membership cards. Demand was huge and they gather every week to talk about things that they have seen.

Organisations, large and small, the usual and unusual suspects are rolling up their sleeves and making change happen – and the amazing Wild Network is the personification of this, bringing people together to create real change.

Something is stirring across the UK, in schools, local communities and the conservation movement that gives me hope. The den-building revolution has begun and the road to reconnection with nature is paved with optimism.