Opinion: Being outside is great for kids but adults need to go feral too, says Matt Gaw
It’s about time we realised that making time for nature is good for us and our planet
It’s long been argued that outside learning for children is vital.
Rather than just being confined to classrooms and trammelled by rules and the drudge of phonics, maths and formulae, they should be given space to observe and explore – to be allowed to be free to think and develop in a way that is, well…natural.
An overview of research into outdoor education by King’s College London found that children who spend time learning in natural environments “perform better in reading, mathematics, science and social studies” while getting “apathetic students excited about learning.”
A report by the Education and Skills Committee adds that this kind of learning supports “the development of ‘soft’ skills and social skills, particularly in hard to reach children.”
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Successive governments have, at least in words, supported the push to promote outside learning, with the coalition publishing a white paper in 2011 calling for a boost in the number of children receiving an element of their education outdoors.
Of course, since then, massive government cuts to local authorities have seen funding to many outdoor education centres across the country all but disappear.
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And, with a pressurised school system of targets and league tables, initiatives like forest schools are always going to fall behind a classroom-based curriculum when push comes to Goveish shove.
But if it is vital to fight to ensure our children can learn outside, to be as environmentalist George Monbiot said, more ‘feral’, then it is also crucial that adults – us busy and frantic parents – also reconnect to nature and the joy of the wild.
Because it certainly appears that grown-ups have got out of the habit of simply going outside – of taking the time to stare at anything other than a computer or a TV screen. Instead we exist on the run, bouncing from office to home in a soul-sapping, brain-fugged blur of school runs, shopping trips and traffic jams.
I’m certainly no different, I know that despite a deep love of nature, I can easily go five days without seeing anything more than the A14 and the inside of my office.
This dissonance between our everyday lives and nature is not only harmful in that we are losing the capability to help our children play outside – to guide them and encourage them when the education system falls short – but it is also damaging our health.
Deep down we know contact with nature is good for us, it is, as psychology professor Richard Ryan said, “food for the soul.” Indeed, studies have shown that those lucky enough to live near and experience green spaces have a 50% chance of being more healthy – both physically and mentally while also having a massively reduced risk of obesity.
And this is why projects such as Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s 30 Days Wild are so important. The new initiative, which runs throughout June, is essentially a challenge for people to spend at least half an hour every day for 30 days outside. Whether it is playing in the garden with the kids, climbing a tree, looking out for a hunting owl or just sitting in a park in a rarely taken lunch break, the idea is to get people to take time to include nature in their busy lives – to re-engage in a meaningful way and create a new lifestyle habit that will last far beyond the month of June.
I should also say at this point that this mission to go wild (a challenge that I will be taking up) has nothing to do with “nature shaming” – a regretful media tendency to hoot with owlish derision if a survey shows that X number of adults don’t know their tawny from their tits. After all, nothing could be more of a barrier to people getting back outside and sharing that world with their children than the thought that they are somehow not qualified.
Because, we are, as humans, part of the natural world, we depend on it and it depends on us. And this really is the crucial point. Aside from the benefits that come to us and our families by swimming in rivers, searching for bugs, or walking in woods, by getting back to nature we also ensuring its survival.
Once wildlife and an awareness of our place in the natural world becomes normalised again, then the recognition that we need to protect and conserve our green and wild spaces also becomes part and parcel of our everyday life.
So go outside, before something priceless gets lost forever.