Nature’s Children

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It is all the stuff of growing up that so many of us remember, or wish for our own kids and grandchildren. A muddy childhood spent scrabbling around in leaf litter and building dens that will never, despite all expectations, last the winter. Life lived at full tilt, in the moment, outdoors.

Bugs have been treated to some luxury accommodation in a small patch of woodland in the Scottish borders this autumn. Their new hotel is a multi-storied construction of the finest wood pallets, packed full of sticks and grasses.

The little hands that made it have since moved on to building homes for overwintering hedgehogs. There are also plans afoot to build nest boxes for tawny owls, mould clay faces into trees and collect autumn leaves for artful laminations.

Every Friday afternoon the Newcastleton primary school children are out on a serious wildlife mission, with some good old fashioned fun thrown in for good measure. When they aren’t identifying wild plants or searching for wee beasties then you will find them climbing trees, swinging off branches, or just sipping hot chocolate brewed up in a Kelly kettle. There isn’t a single flat screen to be seen.

It is all the stuff of growing up that so many of us remember, or wish for our own kids and grandchildren. A muddy childhood spent  scrabbling around in leaf litter and building dens that will never, despite all expectations, last the winter. Life lived at full tilt, in the moment, outdoors.

Sadly it a childhood that is being denied a generation. According to research by the National Trust only one in ten children in the UK now regularly playing in wild places. The Newcastleton primary kids are some of the last children running loose in the woods in Britain today with ‘stranger danger,’ health and safety and the lure of technology keeping the rest at home.

The American author Richard Lowe summed up this most modern of conditions as ‘Nature Deficit Disorder,’ measurable in rising levels of obesity, anxiety and attention difficulties in young people. Lowe warned that: “for a generation nature is becoming more of an abstraction than a reality. Increasingly, nature is something to watch, to wear, to ignore.” 

SWT’s Wildlife Watch Groups are an attempt bridge the gap. Wendy Patterson’s group in Newcastelton has been running  in the woods behind her house for the past two years now.  She started with just five children and they only had an old tarp to shelter under in the heavy rain and snow.  Their numbers have since swelled to 18 with older kids helping out. In truly dismal weather they now retreat to the wooden circular shelter they built themselves, decorated with dream catchers.  

Wendy wants these group meetings to be child led. “I’m not interested in being their teacher,” she tells me. “ I have an idea of what direction we are going but it is up to them to choose what they want to do each week.” She has worked in Forest Schools in the past, which have more of a bush craft emphasis, but prefers the conservation focus of Wildlife Watch. She drafts in local experts to help carry out wild flower surveys, monitor bats with detectors and ring the woodland’s resident tawny owls.

Wendy set up her Wildlife Watch group to help improve her own  children’s appreciation of the natural world. Jake (aged 9) has loved it and now wants to set up a wildlife rescue centre. He would like to be a wildlife photographer when he grows up and hopes to get his first hide for Christmas. Amber (aged 6) admitted that she is mainly into the their woodland forays for the toasted marshmallows by the fire.

Wendy is also finding that the simple act of getting kids out together into the great outdoors has the power to heal. She has noted a real growth in the self-esteem in many children who come along and their parents have reported a marked growth in their confidence. “I’m not just taking them into the woods,” she says. “I’m trying to connect, to make a difference with them.” 
The reasons why are complex.

There is a lot of working together and problem solving in the many of the group activities. Wendy is also convinced that Wildlife Watch gives children a chance to try stuff that may not always work out. “I try and show them that to fail isn’t a bad thing…to help them cope and learn from it,” she comments. And then there is that unquantifiable bit of magic. Giving children a chance to get a true sight of the sky, to watch something grow.

One of Wendy’s favorite games is ask each child in her group to find a seasonal ‘journey stick’ with a spiral of thread attached to it. They then take a walk together through the woods, deciding what they want to tie to their stick, and what they wish to leave behind. Wendy hopes they have picked up a love of nature from her Wildlife Watch group that will now stay with them throughout their lives.

As the evening light filtered through the trees and the kids sit contentedly around drinking hot chocolate at the end of a long day I ask Wendy what she hopes for in the next 50 years. “I’d like my grandchildren to grow up in a world exactly like this,” she replies.

Scottish Wildlife Trust Magazine, November 2014

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