Nature is a crucial part of childhood

Katie Jo Luxton calls for us to reconnect with our natural heritage

Young children now spend so little time outside, that four in ten have never seen a conker.” The Times 23/4/14 reporting a Littlewoods poll; even retail giants now see a market in tapping into parents anxieties that their children are no longer playing outside.

It may seem obvious that exploring the world around us is a crucial part of childhood  – collecting stones, insects, romping over the moor, climbing trees.  But that is far from the case for children now. Less 10% of children play regularly in natural places – that’s 75% decline in 40 years.  For a host of reasons, the social norm has shifted.


This week on Click on Wales


This week on Click on Wales we’ve been examining the modern role that the heritage and cultural sector can play in Wales

Tuesday: Listen to the latest IWA Podcast on heritage and culture

Wednesday: John McGrath examines the big issues affecting the heritage sector in Wales

Thursday: Karen Dusgate examines how the heritage sector can work differently to mitigate the challenges it faces

Today: Katie Jo Luxton calls for us to reconnect with our natural heritage

Terms such as Nature Deficit Disorder and the Extinction of Childhood Experience indicate the pervasive, negative impact of this trend. There is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates the benefits children gain from exploring the natural world in their personal and social development, and conversely the risks to their long term physical and mental health, if deprived of this experience.

Contact with nature reduces aggression and stress behaviours and increases a child’s ability to understand and apply their learning. Outdoor adventure play develops a child’s self esteem, confidence and ability to assess risk.

Children who don’t take risks become adults who don’t take risks. In the current global economy this, too, is a price we cannot afford to pay, as pointed out by Lord Digby Jones, former chairman of the CBI:

If we never took a risk our children would not learn to walk, climb stairs, ride a bicycle or swim; business would not develop innovative new products… scientists would not experiment and discover, we would not have great art, literature, music and architecture.

The amount of time spent outdoors as a child is highly predictive of whether they will be physically active as adults.  Those children that play in natural environments are more highly motivated to be active. Here in Wales, we have the highest percentage of overweight children  in the developed world and inactivity costs Wales more than £650million a year – can we afford not be prioritising reconnecting our children to nature and outdoor play?

And there is a double crisis here, for just as children’s contact time with nature is under pressure, so too is nature itself. Our wildlife is being lost at an alarming rate. The State of Nature report launched by Iolo Williams in Wales last year, reveals that 60% of species have declined in last 50 years.  Half of those so much so, that their future existence is now in the balance.  These statistics translate into sad realities; the hundreds of thousands of children have never seen a hedgehog, played amongst bluebells, opened a conker.

Just as we need to restore our connection to our natural heritage, we also need to restore nature itself.  Such investment in nature would mean supporting land managers to align food production with careful stewardship, increasing the management of our protect landscapes, creating wetlands to manage storm and flood surges and focusing action to ensure that no more species go extinct in Wales on our watch. We can also give nature a home in every urban green space and help families venture outdoors once again.

This will need to be a collaborative endeavour – the resources to restore nature are spread throughout the public, private and third sectors. The challenge in these financially constrained times is to focus the resources available, from all parties, on achieving shared goals.

The Welsh Government has set about articulating a grand vision around sustainable development and natural resource management. This ambition is to be applauded but will remain just that, unless the key steps on this journey are really, clearly articulated.  Having taken much of the policy role out of Natural Resources Wales –  the Welsh Government must lead by providing clarity of direction at a level that people can really grasp; for example, setting specific targets for nature recovery and ‘out of classroom learning’ for children.  A second step will be to shift from centralised Government schemes to focus resources to support and facilitate the development of partnerships, which can help to lever in more income and in kind commitment from others deliver on the shared goal.

We have a major transformatory opportunity to ensure that the contribution our generation makes to the place we live, is to restore the nature that has been lost. To hand onto our children a land and cityscape in which both they and nature can thrive.  Baroness Andrews’ report on the heritage sector’s contribution to tackling poverty,  notes that  “Each of us is shaped by the place in which we live and each generation reshapes that place in its own image”. Our ability to restore our natural environment will determine who we are.

Katie Jo Luxton is the Director of RSPB Cymru

2 thoughts on “Nature is a crucial part of childhood

  1. Erthygl hyfryd, Katie-Jo. Dyma un o’r heriau pwysicaf i’r rhai ohonom sydd am weld byd cynaliadwy.

  2. Katie Luxton’s contribution to this mini-series on the heritage and cultural sector helps to define the position of the discussion in the context of where the Welsh government seems to be headed in these extremely amorphous subject. Part of the difficulty, I suspect, is that there may be tendency to place heritage and culture on the back burner rather than integrating the values that they represent and contribute to general well-being into the broad model of societal development in Wales. Other countries are in the same boat.

    I am reminded of a story I heard recently about a project to restore an old building where the tenders for rebuilding exceeded the engineers’ estimate by a signifiant margin. The immediate reaction was to cut the heritage program associated with the project in order to save costs. This aspect of the project was a small percentage of the total cost, and managed on a shoe string by capable people with a strong element of public engagement, including involvement with local schools. Perhaps the engineer should have been taken to task for underestimating the job, but the heritage component was clobbered following advice from a heritage agency. Probably a familiar story, but illustrates the “value” placed on the heritage aspects of the scheme, even by the staff of a quasi-public agency.

    The discussion of culture and heritage has a long way to travel before attitudes change.

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