Today I participated in a Twitter party with the hashtag #naturalchildhood. The National Trust, amongst many others it seems, is highly concerned that the younger generation are suffering from “Nature Deficit Disorder”. They cite over-zealous health and safety regulations, over-stuffed school days and an over-abundance of indoor entertainment as the culprits, robbing our children of the chance to enjoy the natural world.
Before I became a Momma, I was (and still am, I hasten to add) a primary school teacher, with a particular responsibility for geography. Sadly I agree with their findings. 27 out of the 32 children in my class in 2010 could not tell me what a seed for a pea plant looked like, or identify where most of their food came from. That scared me.
Now, my oldest son is 2 and a half. He doesn’t know about the rainforests or humpback whales, but he knows quite a few garden birds on sight (and they are all called “Mister” before their name), can tell me whether a squirrel or a bird has eaten a pine cone, and find where the toads and slow worms prefer to hide in our garden.
He loves to hold snails in his hand and reassure them they can come out of their shells, (“It okay, Snaily, nothing be ‘cared of, it just me, Jensen Jones”) rescue worms from the path when it’s been raining outside, catch spiders and millipedes from under timber, and woodlice and slugs from plant pots. He knows the difference between a bumblebee and a honeybee, and which plants they and the butterflies like best. He thinks moths are awesome and knows their favourite food (squashed peaches, he tells me).
There are shamefully at least nine spiders in my bathroom (13 was my
highest count), and at least 7 of them are different species. We had a
false widow in our kitchen window for over four years until she died. I
don’t like spiders that much (although I appreciate the job that they
do) but Jensen does. So I fake it, just until I too can learn to love them. Our Little Adventurer loves each and every “Mitter Kinnywegs” that he
meets. Wants to hold them, watch them, talk to them.
My boy prefers raw vegetables to cooked ones, especially from his own (or Granny’s) garden, knows how to grow his own food with seeds and he can tell you which blackberries are ready for picking from his own special bush, and which we must wait for.
In short, there is no other place he would rather be than outside. Rain or shine, harshly windy or pleasantly balmy (granted, that doesn’t happen often), the wellies (now new Gruffalo wellies) are at the back door ready for action. At the weekend, if we’re not in the forest or a farm, by the seashore or stream,we’re in the back garden. Hunting, discovering, learning about the world.
I vividly recollect the same activities as a little girl with my parents:
Bundled up walks with my “chesty” on (my scarf crossed over my chest and tied behind me under my coat to keep me extra warm) in the drifts of deep snow;
Conker hunting amongst the rich, jewel coloured leaves, wearing cords and scarves and gloves that gave no protection against the prickly shells, through the local woods.
Catching orange and blue butterflies in the school fields and then staring open mouthed at them in the giant glass sweet jar my dad would pop them into temporarily so I could admire their wings as they perched on the leafy twigs placed in there.
Building fairy dens at the bottom of the garden and creating tiny dresses and umbrellas for them by picking my Mum’s nasturtiums.
You get the idea. My childhood was beautiful and enriched by nature, and I thank my parents so deeply for it.
Every experience I’ve had is deeply engrained in my mental scrapbook of childhood memories and I flick through it carefully with immense heart-squeezing fondness. They’re the most precious and durable presents I could have ever asked for as a little girl.
Best of all though, was catching sticklebacks in jam jars with string handles at the brook behind my Granny’s house. That was fantastic. Lay on the pipes under the bridge with my younger sister, scouting the fish as we dangled our nets into the water, holding our breaths, waiting for our chance to strike, was the highlight of our young Summers. Pure childhood magic.
I can’t remember what was on TV when I was a child and computers weren’t around then, but I remember my Eskimo coat that kept the snow from my face in Winter and my dog chasing the sledge crazily down the snowy hills at the back of our house as we screamed with laughter. I could never forget finding my first rabbit in the woods whilst walking with my cousins and discovering he wasn’t wild at all, but an old rabbit dumped by some neglectful person and taking him home to be my pet. I still smile when I think of twilight Christmas dog walks with my Mum into the local forest, kitted out with a pair of scissors and a suspicious looking carrier bag that we hoped would hold up as we went “holly rustling” to decorate the house.
These are the kinds of memories I want for my children. Real ones that years later they can invoke again by the smell of a dog rose or the touch of an icicle. I want them to get caught up trees scrumping apples like we did, and build dens in bushes; eat cob nuts and egg plums that they’re foraged for with their friends. I want them to know what’s right here on their doorstep before they go further afield. Before they worry about the coral reef or the polar bear, I want them to know how we’re destroying the habitats of our own cherished foxes, hedgehogs and deer. Why? Because everything good starts small, and at home. Home really should be where your heart is.
And my heart? It’s filled with both pride, because with a little enthusiasm and effort (and often a little petrol and parking money), we can foster our children’s fascination for the natural world, and and it’s filled with hope too, that when the world falls into their hands and it’s time for them to take responsibility for this planet, they will treasure and cherish the natural world that we currently seem so intent on destroying. We all protect the things we love.
We’re working hard in our family to connect with the outdoors mainly because both my husband and I feel it’s right for our family, and we relish the adventures we have exploring forests and wherever else we can visit. Its impact on Jensen is quite obvious to us in terms of his extensive vocabulary, growing independence, advanced physical ability and the development of his own capability to judge risk, even at his young age.
|Re-seeding The Grass With Casanova, Apparently|
I’ll confess that I’m not a fan of computer games (I’m embarrassingly useless at them) and I hate being stuck in the house. I can’t tell you what’s on television (other than Team Umizoomi, Jake and the Neverland Pirates, Super Why and whomever else we watch in the week) for adults. And whilst I agree with the National Trust’s assertions, I’d add us as parents to the list of obstacles that children need to overcome to get in touch with nature again. I think we ourselves create the biggest barrier because unlike computer games, we can’t buy experiences in the outdoors and sit our children with them in the living room whilst we get on with the housework or whatever else has piled up during the week that needs to be dealt with.
Learning about the outside world takes effort and time ~ and those are two things that every parent, regardless of wealth or social standing, can afford if we try. So leave the ironing, forget the dishes….grab your Gruffalo wellies and let’s go hunt some bugs.
The National Trust has a list of 50 things that children should do
before they’re 11 and three quarters. We’ve done 18… See how you
measure up, get some ideas for this weekend. Your little one might be the next David Attenborough or Steve Irwin, who knows?