My (nearly) 9 year old granddaughter Evie and her younger twin siblings spent last Bank Holiday up at the House in Scotland. They played on the beach, ran through the woods, and took full advantage of being outside in the sunshine. As with all the grandchildren, Evie likes nothing more than getting involved with whatever activity I happen to be doing. So when it came to pulling out those pesky Nettles from my borders she came to help. I don’t wear gloves and can remove each nettle without them living up to their name and stinging me. Evie wasn’t up for that level of hands on participation, but she did know that if she got stung, what she needed to do was rub the leaf of a dock plant on the sting and this would soothe and take the pain away.
In a study of 2000 8 – 12 years olds undertaken for the TV channel Eden and published last week, it seems that over 50% of children today wouldn’t know this fact. Indeed, 64% of children play outside for less than once a week, 28% haven’t been on a walk in the countryside in the last 12 months, 21% have never been to a farm and 20% have never once climbed a tree. These days children are more likely to be admitted to hospital for injuries incurred from falling out of bed than falling out of a tree – and according to RoSPA falls account for 44% of all child accidents.
The cost of such accidents is high in financial terms, around some £275 million annually (for example, treating one severe bath scald can cost £250,000); but there are also the emotional and psychological costs of providing care for someone in pain, dealing with disfigurement and perhaps disability caused by an accident. Bringing such statistics slightly closer to home, when I returned to my house (Manchester not Scotland) on Friday, it was to find a group of parents and ambulance men trying to extricate a 11 year old boy who had climbed over the 6 foot high fence into my garden, slipped and ended up at the bottom of a steep bank in a stream with a suspected broken leg.
The boy had been with others who raised the alarm and got prompt help. The garden has always been a magnet for young children. It is about ½ an acre in size and completely surrounds the house. It is divided up into lots of different gardens, and there are masses of trees to climb, places to build dens, a stream with waterfalls running through it, and until recently there were chickens roaming free. While it is possible to allow our grandchildren varying degrees of age related freedom in the garden, it is not possible to truly prevent other curious children from trying to come in to play, explore and have fun.
And that's the problem. There is much evidence to show that when children stop going out into the natural world (as opposed to the often surreal world of TV and computers) it can really impact upon their development. Unlike young Evie it is not so much what children know about nature as what happens to them when they are in nature; and preferably not just in it, but in it without grown-ups. As the Eden study noted far fewer children are experiencing the enjoyment and challenge of exploring nature on their own or with friends these days.
Technology of course is a big culprit here. A staggering 70% of children aged 8 – 18 have a TV in their bedrooms, and this age group can watch up to 4-5 hour of TV a day. Increasingly this is a generation that is now watching TV programmes on their mobile phones, computers and tablets. 'Stranger danger' is the second biggest reason children today don't gain access to the outdoors (even if this might be the nearest park). Despite the 1 in 1 million chance of a child being killed by a stranger (a statistic that has held true in the UK since the 1970's) the fear of abduction, abuse or violence by an unknown adult is why most parents won't allow their children out unsupervised. I must admit I do worry about the volume of traffic – which in the 53 years since I was 8 years old, has increased exponentially.
All that said, we need to find new ways of helping our children and young people to more easily gain access to nature. Our colleagues in the University of Essex, who have been researching the benefits of 'green exercise' for the past 13 years (see here), report that just 5 minutes of green exercise a day can have a big impact on our mental health and well-being. Likewise, the fabulous children and nature network (see here) have a wealth of research studies referenced that show how free and unstructured play out-doors can boost problem-solving skills, a child's ability to focus, improve co-operation with others, and increase their self-awareness. Children who regularly get to be outside are likely to be happier and healthier and of course, it might help them avoid the scourge of the 21st century, obesity.
Later on today, one of my other grandchildren, 4 year old Jack will get out his tool set and help me repair the fence the emergency services damaged in rescuing the young boy on Friday. Jack already understands the importance of the need to wear safety glasses, gloves and protective gear, when doing certain jobs but I doubt that will stop him from jumping into the stream so the water runs over the top of his wellies. But as we are promised wall to wall sunshine today, I'm not worried. I am sure he will have fun as he looks for frogs or whales, dragons or submarines and won't at all mind getting wet - his Mum, however, may well be a different story…