Bring Back the Wild Things

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“The human heart’s love for nature can not ultimately be concreted over.”

The Falkirk Wildlife Watch group crouch around a white tray teeming with pond life at Juniper Wildlife Reserve in Grangemouth. Their central focus is a pulsating, inky black squiggle that inspires horror and awe in equal measure. James (aged 9) gently prods ‘Frankie’ the leech with a stick too see if it will latch on, before describing the other creatures he has netted with his friends. There are a couple of male sticklebacks with flushed red bellies, sleek water beetles, caddis fly larvae and lots of tadpoles.

They ceremoniously tip everything back into the pond’s subterranean depths, careful not to hurt anything they have temporarily captured. In a single morning the group have learned more about the wonders of the natural world in this pond than they could ever have been taught in a classroom. And the learning doesn’t stop at the pond’s edge. There are over 300 species of plants, 50 species of birds, 100 invertebrates and 20 mammals to discover in Juniper’s four hectares of reclaimed railway sidings in the heart of Scotland’s industrial central belt.

Overseeing the 7,000 to 10,000 children who visit Juniper each year, Falkirk Ranger Clare Toner is convinced that outdoor education has far reaching benefits. She runs school activities to support the national curriculum and is amazed by how quickly young pupils learn in the relative wilds of Juniper :“If they find something for themselves it is much more likely to stay in their minds than reading from a textbook.” She sees children who regularly visit Juniper quickly grow in confidence and interact better, sharing their finds and working as a team to set up equipment.

Clare also witnesses less tangible benefits. “Many of the children who visit here for the first time have never experienced the wonder of turning over a stone and finding a woodlouse,” she commented. “You only have to see their faces to know that time spent in nature is transformative.” Clare’s observations are born out by a growing body of scientific research indicating that children are happier, healthier and more creative when they are in regular contact with the natural world.

Which makes it all the more puzzling why, despite the importance of nature to childhood, young people are increasingly distanced from it. The American author Richard Louv lit a touchstone of concern in his seminal book Last Child in the Woods, highlighting the modern condition of ‘nature deficit disorder’ with its symptoms of obesity, ADHD, isolation and depression. For Louv the very richness of human experience has been diminished by a ‘startling’ shift in our relationship with green spaces: “Increasingly, nature is something to watch, to consume, to wear – to ignore.”

The issue is just as pressing here in the UK. The Wildlife Trust’s green paper Every Child Wild (2015) warns of ‘a generation of children growing up at arm’s length from the natural world,’ with just one in ten playing in wild places. Many of the simplest experiences that we took for granted growing up are now being denied to our own children. Over a quarter of children aged 8-15 have never played outside by themselves and almost 60% have never discovered frogspawn. With so little time spent running around outside no wonder one in five children in Scotland are now overweight and one in ten are considered obese.

The triggers for this disconnect are well documented. Wild spaces to explore close to home have diminished and fears over safety mean that parents are reluctant to let their children out alone. And then there is the sirens call of screen time. According to the market research firm Childwise, children in the UK aged 5 to 16 spend an average of six and a half hours a day playing computer games, watching TV or using a mobile phone or tablet. In her book KITH the writer Jay Griffiths sums up a childhood that has become unnatural: “Born to burrow and nest in nature, children are now exiled from it.”

The trend is only compounded in schools. Scotland’s curriculum for excellence was supposed to enshrine outdoor education in the school programme with a powerful vision for ‘learning in the outdoor environment to become a reality for all children and young people.’ In reality only a small minority of schools have taken this to heart, choosing instead to keep children in the classroom.

Alison O’Hara, Teacher Naturalist at SWT’s Montrose Basin, struggles with the hurdles of getting school children out into the reserve every day. Strict health and safety rules over permissions and the teacher to child ratios have taken all the spontaneity out of school outings. She is especially concerned that by the time children reach secondary school a narrow focus on exams puts huge pressure on timetables. “Trips into the wilds are too often seen as being frivolous, or for children that schools can’t do anything else with,” she commented.

Despite these barriers Alison is heading up an education programme at Montrose that attracts between 2,500 and 3,000 children every year. Right now she is busy leading mini-beast surveys at low tide on the estuary, looking for worms, crabs and shells. Come October her attention will switch to the estimated 80,000 pink footed geese that arrive on their winter migration. Having been a playgroup and scout leader for many years Alison’s working mission is simply “to get kids out at every opportunity.”

Luckily Alison and Clare aren’t alone. All across Scotland there is a gentle revolution going on, led by parents, educators and volunteers, to re-wild childhood. It is evident in the Duke of Edinburgh Award, The John Muir Award and Forest Schools. It is also growing through SWT’s Wildlife Watch Groups which now total 35 with more than 100 ‘leaders’ and ‘helpers.’ At its heart is the common recognition that forming an intimate bond with the natural world should be a given for each and every child in Scotland. It is also a battle that can only be won, for in Jay Griffiths words “The human heart’s love for nature can not ultimately be concreted over.”

SWT Magazine, June 2017

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