When author Richard Louv published his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder, he created a national conversation about the disconnection between children and nature.
Today, many children are growing up in what amounts to well-meaning, protective house arrest, their play reduced to the manipulation of joysticks and keyboards. Fear of strangers and traffic, ubiquitous electronics and other barriers separates them from nature, and in developed countries in particular, this gap has been growing for at least three decades.
Reports on children and nature have revealed that less than 10 per cent of children play in woodlands, countryside and heaths, compared with 40 per cent of adults when they were young. 64 per cent of children play outside less than once a week, whilst one third of all under 16s avoid playing outdoors because they don’t want to get their clothes dirty.
At a recent conference, David Attenborough lamented the loss of nature experience to so many children. “We are in a paradoxical situation in that whereas over half the world’s population is becoming urbanised and knowing less and less, oddly, through the television, they know more and more about exotic places … I dare say they know more about East African lions and game than they do about foxes.”
Research has shown that direct exposure to nature can relieve symptoms of attention-deficit disorders, and stimulate cognitive development and creativity, whilst reducing obesity. The opposite is often true of children who spend a lot of time indoors.
The good news, is that we’re seeing action already, with a growing movement to connect children to nature. One organisation heavily involved in the drive to encourage Britons into the fresh air is the National Trust. The charity – often associated only with country houses – has over one thousand outdoor activities on offer this summer alone, from canoeing and cycling, to tree climbing and den building.
In Hampshire, The Vyne – renowned for its 16th- and 18th-century architecture - is also home to 400 acres of glorious English countryside, criss-crossed with trails that meander through meadows, parkland and ancient woods. A popular feature with younger visitors is the discreet little bird hide, which nestles alongside a lake fringed with grasses and teaming with bird life.
With such a diverse range of habitats, the estate is teaming with wildlife, and warden Heather Fisher’s popular family rambles are the ideal opportunity for a close-up introduction to butterflies, ‘mini-beasts’ and bats. In the Walled Kitchen Garden, friendly hens can be stroked and watered, whilst wooden climbing equipment and a new self-guided orienteering course through the woods test agility and coordination.
Today’s parents may well have been familiar with those uninviting ‘keep off the grass’ signs ubiquitous with a visit to an historic garden. At Mottisfont near Romsey, things couldn’t be more different, and on warm days, the immaculate lawns in front of the house are a popular draw for picnickers. Louise Govier, Visitor Experience and Communities Manager, has been instrumental in turning Mottisfont into a place of informal relaxation and play: “Yes, we are a heritage location, but Mottisfont is so much more than a historic house and garden. This place is just made for families and we want children to have the freedom to really explore and enjoy it,” she says. The latest ‘additions’ to Mottisfont are subtle; baskets of Pooh Sticks can be found on the bridge over the famous River Test which runs through the grounds, whilst den-building materials are located close to cycle routes along the river bank. Children are free to climb up into the sinewy branches of Mottisfont’s giant plane trees, and test their speed around the Trim Trail’s circuit of wooden workout equipment.
Cliveden in Buckinghamshire is undoubtedly a place of horticultural showmanship, with fountains, statuary, topiary and magnificent planting schemes, but amidst all the grandeur lie plenty of opportunities for outdoor fun and games. Chief amongst these is the new Storybook Play Den where children can let their imaginations run wild. This natural play area with bark floor features life-size wooden models of favourite characters such as Gandalf, Peter Pan and the villainous Captain Hook, as well as Cliveden’s own ‘giant’ wildlife (children love the huge stag beetle and centipede). There are large logs for climbing on, willow wigwams to hide in, and quirky toadstool seating. The latest attractions include a ‘Wind in the Willows’-style boat and a turreted house with slide, based on the famous ‘Magic Tree House’ stories.
For a proper outdoor challenge though, try tackling Cliveden’s exciting new maze – a fully grown network of paths hidden in 6ft high hedging, and covering one third of an acre – the same size as the maze at Hampton Court.
Tim Martin, Gardener-in-Charge at Basildon Park in Berkshire and father of two, certainly knows what it takes to keep young children occupied. “My kids will spend hours outside, once they’ve got stuck into the world of dens and make-believe,” he says. “Given half a chance, they are as excited at the idea of woodland hide-and-seek as they would be with a new computer game. Here at Basildon we’ve just completed a woodland hideout made from coppiced hazel and laurel, and it’s been a huge draw for children, even though the concept is incredibly simple.”
Even in the heart of our Capital there is plenty of outdoor exploring on offer with the Trust. 18th-century Osterley Park is one of the few surviving country estates that once graced the outer reaches of the City. Just eight miles from Piccadilly Circus, its 357 acres offer nooks and crannies galore for inquisitive children. There are plenty of bike racks available, and easy to navigate cycling and walking routes take visitors through glorious woods and parkland, as well as lakes teaming with wildfowl.
Summertime sees the start of Osterley Park’s popular Wild Child events. These free weekly activities focus on a new nature- and wildlife theme every week, from bug and bee habitat days, to butterfly and bird identification. They allow young visitors to take their first steps into the natural world around them, and to continue these projects at home with the aid of the butterfly feeders or bee habitats they have made.
All across the country, National Trust properties are preparing to welcome summer visitors with a host of enjoyable outdoor activities and events. For further information visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk and get planning for new experiences and lots of fun!