It’s pretty nerdy, but I’ve stopped wearing headphones on my walk to work, so I can listen to the birds. You might not think you’d hear many of them in London, but you’d be surprised. It was George Orwell who set me off. I know you’re supposed to read his stuff about politics, but I have a soft spot for his essays about nature. “It is remarkable how nature goes on existing unofficially, as it were, in the heart of London,” he wrote in Some Thoughts On The Common Toad. “I have seen a kestrel flying over the Deptford gasworks, and I have heard a first-rate performance by a blackbird in the Euston Road. There must be some hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of birds living inside the four-mile radius, and it is rather a pleasing thought that none of them pays a halfpenny of rent.” Seventy years later, he’s still right. Wildness is all around us if we look for it, though it seems plenty of us don’t.
Last week, a government survey revealed that one in nine British kids hasn’t visited a park, forest, beach or other natural environment in the past 12 months. The study (which was conducted over two years) turned out plenty more surprising findings. Only eight per cent of children aged six to 15 visited natural environments with their schools. Those in the most affluent socio-economic group were almost twice as likely to experience nature with their school as those in the less affluent groups. Children from BAME households were significantly less likely than their white peers to visit natural places.
There were also regional variations – kids in the North East have the best access to the great outdoors, for example; 78 per cent made frequent visits. This tallies with my experience growing up there. We were outside a lot, though we weren’t an “outdoorsy” family. Nobody was in performance fabrics and special boots, taking healthful walks. I was just one of 30 or so cousins you might find creating a giant mudpit, making a bonfire or laughing hysterically as we watched Our Victoria’s flip-flops come off one by one and float out to sea.
Most parents instinctively understand that outdoor play is good for children, although they may not realise how good. As well as boosting their general health and fitness, kids who spend time playing freely outdoors can look forward to improving their eyesight, learning ability, mental wellbeing and self-esteem, while lowering their chances of developing depression, ADD, ADHD, obesity and stress. They’ll also have fun, though most of the literature on the subject fails to mention this, which just goes to show how boring adults are.
The term “nature deficit disorder” has even been coined (in 2005, by American author Richard Louv) to describe those suffering side effects of being disconnected from the natural world. It’s not an entirely uncontroversial idea, but even his critics agree that spending time playing outside is good for kids.
Growing up, we were outside a lot, though we weren’t an 'outdoorsy' family. Nobody was in performance fabrics and special boots, taking healthful walks
It’s also good for adults. It’s easy see why unstructured outdoor time might be something we covet for our children, while failing to pursue it ourselves, especially at this time of year, but we should. We reap exactly the same benefits from being outdoors, and the government’s study found that parental behaviour was strongly linked to their children’s – even teenagers, who arguably stand to gain the most (not entirely sure how you lure them out there, mind – bribery? Pringles breadcrumb trail? Tell them Zoella has been spotted at a nearby beach unknowingly taking candid pics of a music legend?).
There are people who can help. The Wild Network is a (literal) grassroots organisation that aims to “re-wild” childhood. The RSPB is offering free outreach sessions in key cities. The National Trust has created a list of 50 Things To Do Before You're 11 3/4 – it even comes as an app. Tick off all the items and, apparently, you can claim a secret reward (if the National Trust is reading this, can I request that mine is a bottle of gin or a Jo Malone fragrance voucher? Many thanks). There are also local groups like Somerset Outdoor Play. I’m also a big fan of Caught By The River (the website set up by jaded music industry types seeking solace in nature) who are holding their first festival this summer.
Helping kids whose parents aren’t able or willing to get them outdoors is more difficult, though the Office for National Statistics, DEFRA and Public Health England are among the official bodies to take the government’s new research on board and commit to exploring the link between time spent in nature and children’s health outcomes. Hopefully, this will lead to actual policy (protecting local wild spaces and school playing fields might be a good start?). The good news is we don’t need to do much once we get outside, and we don’t need to go far. Just far enough to notice nature goes on on existing, unofficially.