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Feature The Gift of WiId

Feature The Gift of WiId Nicola Davies, Children’s Author Happiness. It’s what we want for the kids in our care. But as sensible adults we know that happiness is elusive, easily destroyed by circumstances and events beyond our control. We also know, as professionals who work with children, that for many, a poor start in their early years can mean a lifetime of under achievement and fragile mental health. As we can’t deliver happiness, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could give children something that would support their sense of wellbeing, promote good mental health and give them some resilience in the face of life’s ups and downs? We can. It’s called nature and the evidence for its efficacy is stacking up. Even the tiniest bit of it can be transformative: students with a natural view from their windows do better in exams, hospital patients looking at trees not brick walls make faster post-operative recoveries and children with ADHD can replace ritalin with a daily dose of nature. But the most startling evidence for the ability of nature to make children healthier, happier and more resilient comes from the widespread effects of its absence: the world wide epidemic amongst children in developed countries of obesity, depression and behavioural difficulties. This wide range of conditions is strongly correlated with the fact that children now grow up indoors, in front of a screen, and has been named by some as Nature Deficit Disorder. Like most children of my generation growing up in the 60’s and 70’s play for me meant ‘outdoors’; it meant ‘wild play’. I do not remember playing indoors as a child. I was outside in dens, up trees, poking things with sticks, making bows and arrows from twigs and string, mixing potions from dandelion petals. From the age of three I had scabs on my knees and I was busy getting dirty, taking risks and sometimes being alone. It’s only now that the kind of play that I took for granted is a thing of the past that its value is being recognised. Wild play builds abilities that screens and toys and even sports just don’t. Nature is always different: infinitely varied and infinitely unpredictable in the possibilities it offers and the responses it gives. A climbing frame is always a metal grid, but every tree is different, with branching patterns and degrees of bendiness that must be assessed and judged anew every time. Making mud pies and dens requires a flexible response to available materials and creative imagination; studies have shown that children playing in unstructured natural environments (i.e. unmown fields with a few bushes) value each other on the basis of ability to imagine and invent, not simply on who can run fastest or kick a ball most accurately. Wild play builds abilities that screens and toys and even sports just don’t “ ” In addition to the physical, sensory and imaginative training that ever changing nature gives, it offers another priceless opportunity, that of perceiving our place in the world. At the top of a tree you are suddenly a part of a large living organism, able to gauge your size and strength, and sense of being against the tree’s. Hiding out in a den you see woodlice and beetles, you hear the call of a bird, all of them a part of the world, just as you are. One of my own most vivid memories is of sitting alone on the edge of field at dusk. I was about seven. I felt the earth turning and I knew that I would one day die, but still somehow be part of the life of the planet on which I had lived. 6 Outlook Issue 58 • Winter 14

Feature At the time I could not have articulated my feelings in words but they were no less real for that. Those early experiences in nature gave me a profound sense of belonging which endures all the storms of life. The relationship I established with the natural world in childhood is quite independent of my relationship to my work, my family and friends. It is utterly dependable and consistent and is a refuge, a comfort and source of calm and of joy that is always available to me. I know I’m not alone in this and research bears out my anecdotal evidence: children who establish a relationship with nature early in life go on to seek out more and more similar experiences in adulthood. This means, as the pressures and difficulties that are an inevitable part of adult life close in, people with ‘the habit of nature’ are able to seek out experiences that will help them cope and keep them well. So how do we re-establish outdoor wild play as the norm? How do we get kids away from screens and sofas and back into dens and trees and muddy puddles? The first step is for us grown-ups to remember our own childhood experiences of those things: to remember how much fun it was. The second is not to try and sell the outdoors to kids in words; you can describe a video game but you students with a natural view from their windows do better in exams, hospital patients looking at trees not brick walls make faster postoperative recoveries and children with ADHD can replace ritalin with a daily dose of nature “ ” can’t describe the unpredictable possibilities of a tree. Just get out there with the kids in your care and see what happens. They want to be with you and if you go, they’ll come. It doesn’t have to be the most beautiful landscape – children mostly don’t look at the world in wide shot, they see in close ups. So a scrappy bit of waste ground with long grass and bushes, or a forgotten end of a school field or a park are good enough. The third step is to interact with nature – build dens, make dams, invent games – anything that encourages children to actively engage with nature: the relationship is about a two way dialogue, it’s not just passive observation. Of course it goes without saying that getting dirty and maybe a bit scratched and bruised is part of the deal and we adults must not fuss about it. Keep it in mind that a child who is always clean and never injured in any way is simply not doing their job as a child. This re-establishment of a wild childhood isn’t just essential for the health and wellbeing of individuals. The survival of our species and the health of our planet depends on it. With a human population of 9 billion to support, planet Earth won’t cope unless we re-learn how to value the natural systems on which we depend for air, water and food. That process of connecting our lives with the nature that supports them begins with dens, trees and muddy puddles. We cannot be good fairies at the cradle of every child, imparting endless happiness and good health. But what we can do is help them to acquire abilities and attributes that equip them to tackle life with enthusiasm: a toolkit that will give them the best chance of fashioning, if not happiness, then at least a life well lived. The tools I’d like to put at every human’s fingertips are curiosity and self-reliance, acquired in childhood through long days of wild play, and continually renewed and reinforced by a lifelong dialogue with nature Outlook Issue 58 • Winter 14 7

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