Sticks and Stones Will… Be a Whole Lot of Fun

Some of my earliest memories are playing outdoors and specifically around trees and woods. I still remember building a den on a cub camp at Dewerstone in Devon. I could’ve only been about 9 or so, but the memory of what I did and how it made me feel sticks with me. I remember building the shelter, covering it with ferns and lining it with moss and even planning to spend the night in it, which of course we didn’t. For ages after, I also thought that it would still be there and if I nagged enough, we could go back, and all see it again. In reality, it was most likely dismantled the very next day, so the next swarm of excited kids to use the very same sticks to build their imagination.

I have always found the creation of shelters with children to be fascinating. What are they building and why? Are they creating a fortress to protect themselves from an unseen foe? Is it to protect them from the marauding squirrels in the wood? Could it just be a den to shelter them from the elements? Whatever it’s protecting them from, it’s all imaginary, which is what is so amazing about it all. The one connecting thing about all of these, however well built or convincing they look to us boring adults is that they are all a portal into another imaginary world where sticks become swords, yellow autumnal leaves become fire, and a few loosely stacked branches and leaves become an impenetrable barrier to whatever is out there.

It has been refreshing the last week as the first spring-like days of the year come upon us to see parents out in the woods letting the small people use their imagination to the full to come up with their magical creations. It’s not uncommon to see the parents joining in and in some cases having more fun than the kids themselves.

Over the years children’s and as a result, adults rapport with the natural world has plummeted. I firmly believe that if you don’t know about something, how can you love it and if you don’t love and understand something, then why would you want to look after it. Sir David Attenborough was once asked by an interviewer “How did you get your love for wildlife” to which his response was “How did you lose yours?”.

I have just been listening to an interview with the author Simon Barnes (Whos new book “Rewild yourself” is waiting to be collected from our local bookshop). He made an excellent point that it’s amazing to learn the names of a few of your favourite things as this will bring you and others infinitely closer to the world around you. If for example, you learn the names of three or four butterflies, they become something special. They are now Brimstone, Peacock or Red Admiral rather than “oh, it’s just a butterfly”. The same can be said of my favourite beetles. If you know the difference between a Cardinal Beetle, a Bloody-Nosed or a Minotaur Beetle, then you will quickly learn what they do and how they live opening up a fascinating micro world in front of you.

Children are far more interested in the micro-landscape than the macro. If you were to say to a seven-year-old, look at that beautiful hill, I’m sure you would get hardly any response, whereas if you were to say “look at that line of marching ants” or “have you seen that snail munching on that leaf?”, then you would get a whole different response and hopefully have found a little something that interests them.

A report “Natural Childhood” published in 2012 stated that between 1970 and 2010 that the average child’s permitted play area has shrunk by a worrying 90% and that the number of children who actively play in the wild has gone from 1:2 to 1:10 over the same period. I’m not sure what the best way to deal with this is, but things like shelters and playing in the woods have to be a positive thing to direct change in the right direction. One sad thing is that many children will only experience this on organised activities when out on school residentials and the like. What’s needed is a cultural change where parents are happy again to take their kids out to the woods, or even better, let them go on their own.

In parallel to this de-naturing of children’s worlds is the change in their language. A couple of years ago, many words such as Adder, Kingfisher, Acorn and Newt were removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary to be replaced with more tech-friendly words such as Blockchain and Coding (Although they do remain in the larger Oxford Primary Dictionary). At the same time, the Oxford University Press analysed the words used across the entries in Radio 2’s 500 Words junior writing competition. The most used word was “hashtag”, and the most frequent theme and ambition was sudden internet fame. All a bit sad in my mind.

So, what’s the solution? To be honest, I don’t think there is a simple one. What’s needed I think, is a combination of education in the natural world. Schools promoting outdoor play and activities and parents being helped and encouraged to take or just let their children outdoors. This all needs the natural world to be demystified and un-scaried (if there I such a word). To mention David Attenborough again, he pointed out that the main threat to the natural world is that there’s no profit in it and nothing to sell. If you could get companies to put a small proportion of effort into “selling” the natural world to children that they use to sell the latest computer, phone or snack to people then there may be hope.