Suffolk: It’s the end of the summer, not the end of outdoor fun

photo by Suffolk Wildlife Trust

photo by Suffolk Wildlife Trust - Credit: Archant

My eldest is soaking wet, filthy and deliriously happy.

Sitting cross-legged on a muddy pond bank, he’s counting water snails and wondering aloud about how they swim and what they eat.

For all the expense and organising, the soft plays and theme parks that summer holidays inevitably entail, I know for him that this is the highpoint of his summer. After all, who needs hundreds of TV channels and electronic gizmos when you’ve got your own escargatoire of snails?

The moment comes as a bit of a revelation. Like many other parents, I’m guilty of assuming that children’s spare time – particularly during long school terms – should be filled constructively in endless number of sports clubs, language classes and workshops.

Despite having the best intentions, my kids probably haven’t had the same time to kick their heels as I enjoyed.

Not, of course, that I did kick my heels, from the age of eight or nine I spent my spare time with friends, climbing trees, building dens and fishing for frogspawn and tiddlers.

Judy Powell, head of education at Suffolk Wildlife Trust has been working for more than 20 years to help people experience the joys of being outside – not just during the summer holidays.

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“Getting outside and having that connection with the outside will stay with you. It is an integral part of your life,” she said. “I think it’s really important to go out and feel the seasons, the changes.

“There are loads of new things to discover now, we’ve got all the seeds and berries and leaves changing colours. Then, in the winter, there are all the animal footprints you can see in the mud and the snow.”

Perhaps, it could be argued, that in an age of hand held games, tablets, smart phones and Facebook the ability to tell a crow from a rook or a conker from a sweet chestnut has limited use. But aside from an increased appreciation of nature (which will hopefully mean children will also come to care about its future survival) there is growing evidence to show that simply being in nature has significant benefits.

According to a study by the University of Essex, just five minutes of ‘green exercise’ can produce rapid improvements in mental wellbeing and self-esteem, with the greatest benefits experienced by the young. Free and non-prescriptive play outside is also thought to enhance problem-solving skills and self-disciple while also boosting social co-operation, self-awareness and happiness. One study published by the American Medical Association in 2005 said “Children will be smarter, better able to get along with others, healthier and happier when they have regular opportunities for free and unstructured play in the out-of-doors.”

For Judy, the benefits of learning outside are clear.

“You gain knowledge and learn from hands-on activities, through touching the earth and the trees and looking at the seeds. It is physical, kinaesthetic learning which they say is one that stays with you. You can look in a book and forget it, but if you can touch something and smell it and feel it…”

The importance of nature to a fully-rounded education and the need to reconnect children with the outside world is one of the reasons behind the continuing growth of Forest Schools in Suffolk. Suffolk Wildlife Trust has been at the forefront of the county’s push for environmental education running Forest Schools in schools or hosting schools from across the UK at their reserves.

The Trust credit the repeated experience of the day-long sessions for increasing awareness and appreciation of nature.

“It’s the ethos of it (the education) that is important, whether it is called Forest Schools or whatever”, says Judy. “The ethos, which the Trust has adopted and is in all our work now, is to be child led. If the child finds a frog you follow the frog you don’t try and teach them about the tree. We believe that child-led learning stimulates imaginative and investigative play. All you hear is about parents wanting their children to achieve all the time, but actually they achieve without always being directed. They can do it themselves.”

But there is still room for improvement and a need for parents to make sure their children are getting access to an outside space, whether it is a park, field or forest.

“The pull of IT and technology has got even greater and kids have got even more gadgets,” Judy says. “It’s about balancing their lives between wild outdoor play and other things. If you have all that (electronic toys) you need to go out and explore what is around you.”

And this means, venturing out even when the sun isn’t shining.

“Put on that all in one waterproof and get out there”, Judy says. “Kids love being out in the rain, they can splash in the puddles and feel the water running off the trees. It’s a different experience and sensation. There’s excitement and that leads them to look around more.”