Thursday 19 April 2012


The National Trust’s imagination deficit

Last week, conservation charity the National Trust launched a nationwide campaign titled 50 Things to do Before You’re 11¾ with the aim of encouraging ‘sofa-bound children’ to take to the outdoors and ‘enjoy classic adventures’. The 50 things children should do before their twelfth birthday included everything from running around in the rain, skimming stones, building dens and bug hunting, to setting up a snail race, damming a stream, flying a kite and making a mud pie.

Growing up on the outskirts of Bergen, in Norway, I was given a lot of freedom to roam outside from a very early age. Norwegians have a strong traditional love of outdoor pursuits and are therefore a lot more reluctant than people in other countries to restrict children’s freedom to play outdoors. The local children, including my siblings and I, were always outdoors, whether in sunshine, rain, sleet or snow. There was never an excuse for staying indoors (not that I remember us looking for one). As Norwegians say: ‘Det finnes ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlige klær’ (‘There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing’).

We had all kinds of adventures catching grasshoppers and frogs with our bare hands, finding our own little hiding places, building dens, climbing trees and exploring the woods. We learnt to skim stones by the fjord and spent hours trying to catch tiny little crabs on the beach. When it wasn’t too unbearably cold, we would swim in the fjord and sometimes managed to catch purple jellyfish, again with our bare hands, while trying to avoid the orange stinging ones.

I can proudly claim to have done the vast majority of the National Trust’s list of 50 fun activities. Although my enthusiasm for some of the activities has waned (or completely disappeared, as in the case of catching bugs, frogs and jellyfish with my bare hands), I still enjoy skimming stones, having snowball fights, making grass trumpets, and have therefore introduced my children to these joys.

For my son’s seventh birthday, we organised a den-building party. I woke up with dread the morning of the party on hearing the rain pelting down outdoors and finding out that the weather forecast was for rain all day. Forgetting that we used to play outdoors whatever the weather, I feared the party would be a great big flop. But, of course, the children loved it and didn’t care one ounce about the rain – in fact, it seemed to add to the sense of adventure.

If only the National Trust had stuck with the aim of inspiring children to explore and enjoy the natural world. Fiona Reynolds, director-general of the National Trust, said: ‘Building a den, picking flowers, climbing trees – the outdoors is a treasure trove, rich in imagination.’ So far so good. But unfortunately she then went on to state: ‘It brings huge benefits that we believe every child should have the opportunity to experience. And there are huge costs when they don’t.’

Alongside 50 Things to do Before You’re 11¾, the National Trust published a report titled Natural Childhood by naturalist, author and TV producer Stephen Moss. ‘Evidence of a long-term and dramatic decline in children’s relationship with the outdoors is “overwhelming” and urgent action is needed to bridge this growing gap before it’s too late’, Moss scarily warns. Like so many reports on childhood these days,Natural Childhood paints a bleak picture of modern living. We are warned about ‘epidemics’ of mental illness and obesity and a host of other deficits and disorders that children purportedly suffer from, including ‘nature-deficit disorder’.

This medical-sounding term was coined by Richard Louv, co-founder and chairman of the US organization Children and Nature Network, in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Louv argues that children are suffering from ‘diminished use of senses, attention difficulties and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses’ as a result of their ‘alienation from nature’. He argues that modern life is narrowing our senses until our focus is mostly visual, appropriate to the dimensions of a computer monitor or television screen.

Louv’s ideas are reflected throughout the National Trust report. Just as ‘alienation from nature’ is presented as the root of all problems, so a reconnection with nature is presented as the answer to everything.

The report claims that exposure to the natural environment can ‘reduce stress and aggressive behaviour in all children, and give them a greater sense of self-worth’. It can improve ‘concentration and self-discipline’, ‘awareness’, ‘reasoning and observational skills’, ‘reading, writing, maths, science and social studies’ and much more. ‘Even short-term “doses” of nature can make a marked impact on mental health’, we are told.

But that is not all. ‘There are also positive outcomes for communities and society as a whole.’ Apparently there is ‘strong evidence that even the lightest contact with nature makes for stronger communities; studies have shown that even in cases where the only variable is the view of green space from a window, incidences of crime are reduced by as much as 50 per cent’.

The conclusion we should draw from the fact that ‘years of academic research and a steady stream of surveys on the subject’ can be presented to show all of the above benefits is not that exposure to the natural world is a panacea for all ills, but that data can be interpreted and spun so as to back up any old argument. If Moss had delved a little deeper - and critically evaluated many of these studies - he might have found that the story was not so simple.

Despite the fact that woodland, fields and streams can provide an abundance of excitement, and wondrous places to explore, children who grow up in cities – and maybe never get the chance to climb trees or catch insects – do not suffer from a disorder of any kind. The wonderful thing about children (which is also what makes them so frustrating to parents at times) is their natural curiosity and constant desire to explore and learn. The delight that flashes across children’s faces when they make a discovery or learn something new is truly inspiring.

But they do not need to be exploring streams or woodlands to experience these delights or to have adventures. Children can have hours of fun on street corners, in back gardens or in local parks – being rained on, feeling the wind in their faces, balancing on walls, kicking a ball around, play-fighting with their mates, and just messing around – if only they are allowed to.

We should not be fretting about whether every child has tried skimming a stone, flying a kite or cooking on a camp fire (but by all means find ways of inspiring them to try these activities). The issue that should concern us is the lack of unsupervised play, not a newfangled nature-deficit disorder. Children should be allowed to play, mess around, explore, experiment with taking risks (within a sensible framework provided by adults), test boundaries, have arguments, even fights, and learn how to resolve conflicts - without adults hovering over them.

Natural Childhood does make some good points on risk-taking: ‘Being outdoors can also confront children with less enjoyable experiences: being frightened, getting cold and wet, and even sometimes being hurt. But consider the alternative: that our children grow up without ever encountering these “difficult” things, and enter the adult world unprepared for the challenges it might bring.’

The issue today is that children and young people are given less and less freedom to roam outdoors at all. To reverse this trend requires a major cultural shift. That means challenging a culture that prizes ‘safety’ above all else. It also means confronting a culture of mistrust in other adults. Ultimately parents will give children the independence they need only if they have sufficient trust in other adults – trust in them not harming but looking out for other people’s children.

Instead of warning (unconvincingly in my view) about the disastrous consequences of a lack of connection with nature, I wish the National Trust had concentrated on showing how nature’s many wonders can capture a child’s imagination.

First published by spiked