I had the privilege of being brought up in the middle of a 62-acre Sussex woodland.
The upsides of an outdoor childhood
Of course, as a status-conscious child I moaned about the lack of TV and (early edition) computer games. Despite my gripes, I knew even then that my surroundings were affecting me beyond just limiting my street cred. With no burning interest in botany, entomology or ornithology, I somehow nonetheless picked up a barrage of country lore that baffled my schoolfriends. I won cross-country races without really trying as my legs were strong from years on foot and bike. I knew how to find free snacks and stay warm and dry outdoors, how to cook campfire feasts and what to do if the flames got out of hand.
I was bewildered by tough London 16 year-olds shrieking with excitement at their first experience of bouncing on a thick bed of pine needles on visits to the wood. I envied their outfits but was shocked by their hysteria. Where had they been?!
Does it matter that kids don’t get outside?
Of course very few children will experience quite such a nature-immersed childhood as mine. But in our ever more sanitised and mechanised world, most children have at best a hands-off relationship with nature. After tens of thousands of years of children playing and working primarily outdoors, the last few generations have seen such interaction with nature vanish almost entirely. And the evidence suggests that this dissociation with nature is more than just a sad erosion of a nostalgic ideal of childhood. In his excellent book ‘Last Child in the Woods’ author Richard Louv argues that the implications for children’s physical and mental health – and for the future of environmentalism – are immense.
The ‘biophilia hypothesis’ suggests that humans thrive best when they interact with nature. Studies on people ranging from prisoners to hospital patients show that those with a view of a natural landscape heal faster. Others show that children playing in natural playgrounds think more creatively and are more likely to play inventively and cooperatively than in concrete ones.
Lack of outdoor play is a contributor to the rise in childhood mental health problems and obesity. And lack of exposure to nature is a possible contributor to the rise in attention deficit disorder.
What’s keeping kids indoors?
When he interviewed parents, Louv found the main thing keeping kids indoors was parental fear. Although statistically abductions are lower than in decades, ‘stranger danger’ means many parents are afraid to allow their kids outdoors. Combined with a reduction in green spaces nearby and requirements to ‘keep off the grass’, it’s little wonder that kids succumb to the attractions of computer games, social media and TV (the average Brit now watches over four hours of TV per day!).
Getting out there at Wilderness Wood
So it’s wonderful to have the chance to address this trend head-on in our wood. In our 62-acres of lovely Sussex countryside we provide a whole range of opportunities for kids and their families to get a taste for the great outdoors and build the confidence they need to re-engage with nature.
Visitors can explore a network of nature trails and a woodland adventure playground. They can cook outdoors year-round in Wild Cookout glades, enjoy local organic food and drink in our timber-frame Barn café, and sleep under the stars in Wild Camps or ‘glamp’ in our beautiful converted horsebox.
As well as providing a great place to explore we bring the place to life with a range of activities designed to bring kids (and accompanying adults!) out of their shells and demystify the outdoors. Educational activities for schools complement their curriculum (from minibeasts to ecosystems). Our team of enthusiastic rangers run hugely popular birthday parties (with themes ranging from Gruffalo Hunts to Robin Hood and Fairy Gardens) and every weekend and on school holidays we run activities that individual children and families can book into – from Survive in the Wild and Castaway Adventures to Monster Hunts and firelighting skills.
We’re also running a growing number of courses for all ages including bushcraft skills, outdoor cooking, foraging and basic woodcraft which we hope will foster lifelong passions, as well as Easter, Christmas and other seasonal festivals.
We can’t all live in the middle of a wood. But I hope that a day or two at Wilderness Wood can help to rekindle some of the magic of the outdoors for children and their families. Our biggest achievement will be if we can inspire people to keep on embracing nature when they go home – even if it’s just a rampage in the park. Please keep ON that grass!