Friday, 30 March 2012

On children and nature

For the past two years it has been my great privilege to edit Link, the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts' internal magazine for environmental educators and outdoor instructors. Early in my career as Link editor I introduced a guest editorial on the last page of the magazine. I wrote the first of these myself, in addition to the most recently-published as this was my last edition in the job. Since my season of outdoor learning and teaching with Norfolk Wildlife Trust and the Hawk and Owl Trust is just beginning, yesterday I wrote to my colleagues at RSWT asking whether they would mind if I reproduced these two editorials here, and they were kind enough to agree. Today, serendipitously, there has been a Twitter-storm around The National Trust's just-published report on the urgent need to re-connect children with their natural heritage, their innate wildness. So here, in this context, is the first of the guest editorials I wrote for RSWT Link magazine, published in December 2010.

Last Words: Nick Acheson reflects on the crucial importance of outdoor learning

The footprints of humankind are young upon this Earth and for most of our time here they have been just that: footprints. Humans and their relatives have trodden barefoot over grass and marsh for all but the modern-most moments of hominid evolution. So too have their quick eyes read landscapes, their ears heard the mutterings of the woods, their lips felt the moods of the wind and their minds threaded all of these sensory inputs into understanding. For to be human is to be human in a landscape. For hundreds of thousands of years we have followed prey through landscapes, found water in landscapes, built homes from landscapes and found meaning for our own lives in landscapes.

It’s easy to romanticise the pure-seeming humans of our genetic past. Make no mistake, they lived short, hard lives and they lived in fear. Theirs were fears of wild beasts in the shadows, of pandemic illness, of starvation, of natural disaster and of malevolent spirits. Yet despite this, indeed because of it, they were creatures of their landscape.

Humans in today’s Developed World live largely in virtual landscapes, perpetually connected to everywhere but the present time and place. Gone is the need to understand when the rains will come, which fruits are bitter and where the wild beasts lurk. They no longer lurk and, to a large extent, we no longer live in a landscape in which death is the swift payment for inexperience and inattention. But this doesn’t equate to a landscape without fear for us. We have transferred our fear to skin cancer from exposure to the sun, Weil’s disease through contact with pond-water, Lyme disease from walking through long grass and the threat of strangers lurking round our playgrounds. These are real dangers, against which proper precaution must be taken, but there is a greater danger by far which faces modern humanity in the Developed World. It is the death of the human soul by dislocation from the landscapes in which we evolved, in which we belong.

If through fear and apathy we keep our children away from the woods, swaddle them from contact with their wild heritage, prevent them cutting their fingers on blades of grass, and stop them exploring, we strangle their humanity. Yes we must take steps to protect them from the perils of skin cancer and of ill-meaning strangers but if, in so doing, we stifle their relationship with their landscapes, their dreamscapes and their mindscapes, we deny them their birthright. In this context our role as outdoor instructors and teachers is cast in a new light. It is not enough to hug trees to inspire children to protect them or to watch ants to teach children respect for other creatures – though these are aims of lofty importance. The aim of today’s outdoor education in the Developed World must be nothing less than saving humanity from slow death by losing sight of its place in the landscape.

So tear outdoors with your children, your classes and your groups and (after a moment’s appropriate risk assessment, better yet with input from the children) wield those dipping nets in the muddy waters of ponds and rifle through barn owl pellets in search of shrew skulls. Let them leap onto sleds and rip down snowy slopes, let them scramble up trees, let them cycle off by themselves in search of secret places, let them walk barefoot. Assess risk and establish rules, yes, but do so to enable not to limit them. And feel happy when children come home with muddy knees and bits of grass in their hair. Happy they’re human. Happy they’re creating for themselves a story of the landscape. Happy that their children will have stories told to them of secret camps in the woods, of bee-stings and of discovery.

Outdoor education has never been of more importance, to save both nature and humanity in the Developed World. May our children’s children echo the sage words of Rudyard Kipling in The Just So Stories:

Suleiman-bin-Daoud was wise. He understood what the beasts said, what the birds said, what the fishes said, and what the insects said. He understood what the rocks said deep under the earth when they bowed in towards each other and groaned; and he understood what the trees said when they rustled in the middle of the morning. 

Reproduced with permission from RSWT.

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