Set Our Youngters Free

The last 17 months have been tricky for us all. Faced with lockdowns, ever-changing rules and restrictions to our lives, separation from loved ones and the worry about our health, the pandemic has left us all questioning what is truly important. For children and teenagers, the disruption to their schooling, self-isolation and cancelled exams has been truly testing. Many, especially those growing up in deprived urban communities, have been stuck indoors for lengthy periods, wondering when they will next play outdoors with friends.

Craig Bennett, Chief Executive of The Wildlife Trusts, says: “We know that children in deprived areas are much less likely to have contact with nature while the pandemic also increased screen-based learning”.

What’s the issue?

Last week, The Department for Education figures show about 840,000 young people were off school for Covid-related reasons and a further 630,000 were absent for other reasons. These youngsters are not in education, accessing their normal social lives and, critically, are not able to enjoy being outside in nature.

With a quarter of secondary pupils out of class last Thursday, and 15% of primary pupils, these grim figures highlight the huge disruption to young peoples’ lives and the impact the pandemic has had (and will continue to have) on their mental health.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, told the Commons Education Select Committee that some of the pupils absent for non-Covid reasons would be suffering from mental health issues. He warned others may be avoiding school because they believe they are destined to fail after a disrupted academic year. “It’s very hard to engage children who think it’s a guaranteed fail at the end of their school career,” he said.

De-natured children

This issue discriminates, with poorer families suffering most. Many disadvantaged children don’t have access to gardens and outdoor space is often urbanised and polluted, so instead they spend an average of 20 hours a week online. This ‘extinction of experience’ is resulting in ‘de-natured’ young people suffering physically and mentally: 3 in 10 children aged 2-15 are overweight and if this continues, half of all adults and 1/4 of all children will be obese by 2050. Lack of time outdoors is leading to an increased vitamin D deficiency, a rise in rickets and asthma as well as increased mental health problems (1 in 10 children have a diagnosed mental health disorder and 1 in 12 adolescents are self-harming).

Get them outside

Rather than worrying about the academic ‘catch-up’ or how many lateral flow tests teenagers have done in the past week, let’s all focus on getting our young people outside and re-connecting them with the natural world. Green environments reduce levels of depression and anxiety and enhance quality of life (results of a Public Health England survey).

Access to nature holds infinite possibilities; children gain cognitive, emotional, physical benefits as well as an increased ability to concentrate, improved academic performance, reduced stress and aggression and reduced risk of obesity (study by Faber Taylor in 2006). A study by Exeter University also found that ‘gardening is as good for our wellbeing as living in a wealthy neighbourhood’ and England’s largest outdoor learning project revealed: ’Children are more motivated to learn when outside’ (Alan Williams, Department for the Environment).

When we experience nature-deficit disorder we don’t live well. Plus, playing outside is an important way for children to develop movement skills. But more and more parents and teachers struggle with getting young people outdoors at all times of the year. The website has some proven tricks that will get them outside and playing:

  • Set up treasure hunts. Make a short, simple list of things for your kids to look for outside—such as “a shiny object,” or “something you can hold liquid in.” The satisfaction of finding the objects turns it into a reinforcing activity, and it will keep them outside in search of the next list item.
  • Identify things. Get a book—with pictures—about birds, bugs, leaves, trees, or flowers in your local area, and go outside looking for specific creatures in the book to identify. Matching leaves to pictures and names has a reinforcing treasure hunt kind of appeal. The same goes for bird calls.
  • Give them the tools to discover. Gifts like a bug box, a magnifying glass, or a shovel will promote ways to explore the outdoors with a fun new tool that feels professional and empowering.
  • Go to an outdoor performance. Parks in almost every city have performances for kids, many of which are free. For older kids who like movies, take them to outdoor plays and musicals.
  • Start a collection. You can find small parts of nature like rocks or shells almost everywhere, and starting a collection adds appeal, giving a kid motivation to search and therefore spend time outdoors.
  • Use the technology to your advantage. If your kid is hooked on any and all electronic devices, have him bring along a camera or phone and create video or photo journals of various nature trips. He’ll still be near a piece of technology, but he’ll be using it to focus on the world around him.
  • Go fruit or vegetable picking. Coming home with a basket of food that they’ve gathered on their own is both rewarding and might make them appreciate their food, and where it comes from, more.
  • Plant a garden. Tracking the progress and seeing the eventual product of a seed your child planted provides a different, deeper sense of achievement than beating a difficult level in a video game or getting a lot of likes on your last Instagram.
  • Take a hike. Walking on a trail to a waterfall or breathtaking view also gives kids a sense of accomplishment, rewarding them for their physical efforts during the hike. This goes for bike rides, too. If there’s a swimming hole at the end, they’ll even be able to cool off. Just don’t forget to bring snacks and take short breaks to keep their energy up!
  • Make art projects. For the kids who would rather sit inside with some arts and crafts, get them to use objects from nature for their art. Picking flowers to press onto paper, using berry juice as paint, or collecting pinecones and rocks to decorate are ways to infuse nature into activities they already enjoy.
  • Build something. You can also reverse the process and make art with your kids that will support and nurture the natural world—things like bird feeders or flower boxes. Kids will keep coming back to watch an object they created provide for other living things.

If we all try to encourage our children to step away from screens and into nature again, the results will be long-lasting and profound. Join them by having fun in the great outdoors: I challenge you all to climb more trees and sport muddy knees!

My three children are encouraged to be outside as much as possible. Here are some of our outdoor activities from the past few months: