The need for nature in the National Curriculum

A provocation paper

Dr Nadia von Benzon, Lecturer in Human Geography, University of Lancaster

Introduction

Access for all

Richard Louv’s notion of the Last Child In the Woods[i] emphasises that children’s opportunities to spend time engaged in free play in the outdoors are reducing. This trend has implications for their mental and physical health, social and cognitive development and their independence and problem solving skills. Louv, and many other journalistic, policy-focused and academic commentators, have foisted the blame for a reduction in outdoor play opportunities in particular on: the ubiquity of children’s access to technological leisure activities that draw them inside; parental fear of harm outdoors — due to societal changes in risk perception and decreasing informal surveillance due to loss of a sense of community; and over-scheduling of middle class children.

Safer now than ever

Research demonstrates unequivocally that contemporary children are at no more risk of harm from playing outdoors than their parents, or grandparents. Yes, there is more traffic, but the roads are regulated better, driving tests are more stringent, and car technology has improved the efficacy of brakes resulting in fewer road traffic accidents[ii]. Strangers pose no more threat to our children than they did to our grandparents — rates of child abduction and abuse have not increased[iii], although the reporting of them has become more widespread and sensationalised. It is true that there may be less community surveillance of children — fewer busybody (or kindly) neighbours willing to intervene or lend a hand to a child in distress. But this decline in ‘village’ parenting, must be at least met by the rise in children’s access to mobile technology allowing children to communicate directly with their carers at the push of a button. Thus the evidence suggests that the decline in children’s outdoor play must be the fault of the parents: parents who are kowtowing to their children’s demands to sit indoors and play; parents who are being over-protective and forcing their children indoors in a misjudged bid to protect them from perceived harm; ‘tiger-mums’ whose desire for their children’s success clouds their judgement and leads to the over-scheduling of their children into extra-curricular activities they deem productive — with no heed to their child’s desire for freedom to roam.

Blame the parents?

Yet parents who do go against the grain and give their children the sort of independence that our grandparents would have taken for granted are vilified. In 2010 the Shonrock family hit a number of national newspapers when the school headmaster threatened to involve children’s services if their eight and five-year-old were not accompanied on their mile-long cycle to and from school. At my children’s own school, this issue wouldn’t arise, as pupils below year five (the English school year in which pupils turn 10 years old) are not allowed to leave the premises unless accompanied by an adult. Just last week a Facebook thread for a parenting group of which I am a member got very heated over a mum’s story of being in a playground with an unaccompanied seven-year-old. The boy’s mother was in the adjoining community hall at a fitness class. Opinion was divided, but the vast majority of comments on the thread suggested reporting the situation to the police or children’s services. The lack of free-range children in our local communities can’t be solely a case of blaming the parents.

Children missing out

Louv and his supporters are not simply discussing children’s ability to roam free, but specifically, their access to outdoor green space. Many of the benefits of time in green space are difficult to differentiate from those of freedom to roam in more urban environments — especially those urban environments with open spaces. However, green space is considered to have particular benefits. Research has shown that there are mental health benefits from spending time in outdoor green space[iv], which have been associated with the relaxing effect of natural stimuli. These benefits include higher levels of resilience, lower levels of stress, and improved emotional regulation. Access to ‘loose parts’ — materials in outdoor green spaces such as sticks, mud and leaves, that can be moved around and used in open-ended play — has also been shown to promote skills like problem solving and creativity. Some authors have prioritised the importance of knowing about the natural world, and the value of recognising features of the environment, such as distinguishing an Oak Tree from a Beech, which can be claimed to result from time spent in nature-based spaces[v]. An inter-generational decline in this sort of knowledge results from a lack of opportunities to engage with green space because of an absence of experts who are able to pass on this understanding to their own children and grandchildren.

Children’s reduced opportunities to spend time in outdoor green space is increasingly pathologised with the use of terms such as Nature Deficit Disorder alluding to the threat posed by lack of engagement with outdoor green space. Whilst this discourse does little to change broader societal perception over the dangers of children’s independent play, it may be effective in improving institutional opportunities for children to access outdoor green space. For example, the arguments may be used in efforts to prevent the sale of school playing fields, or the inclusion of ‘nature spaces’ in new developments. On the other hand, pathologising a lack of access to nature spaces risks demonising innocuous or even beneficial indoor, especially technology-based, activities. Meanwhile research and reflection exploring hybrid approaches to engaging children with both technology and nature, such as Geocaching and Pokemon Go, has received mixed reception from industry experts and journalists.

Access as intervention

Cotemporaneous with growing public and policy perception of a decline in children’s independent access to outdoor green space, and associated detriment to children, has been a proliferation of formal and structured nature-based ‘interventions’ seeking to address this decline. Examples include: forest schools and forest nurseries; school, nursery, and community-based gardening and horticulture initiatives; and bushcraft and other sorts of wilderness activities. A particular growth area amongst these activities for children has been as interventions for marginalised children and young people — particularly for those who struggle to engage with mainstream education. It is common for schools or local authorities to buy in alternative provision for students who are chronically disruptive, have very low school attendance or experience extreme difficulties fitting in with their peers. Increasingly, outdoor green space activities are seen as a useful intervention for these children.

Green space as therapy

Outdoor green space, utilised as therapeutic intervention, has a variety of potential benefits for young people. Green space interventions offer a significant contrast to the expectations and culture of the classroom and are often delivered in the form of care farming; outdoor education; specialist forest school; gardening, horticulture or landscaping projects; or on occasion wilderness therapy. When young people are outdoors, with more space and fewer technological distractions, they have the opportunity to benefit from a high ratio of staff to young people. Pupils have the opportunity to engage in practical activities that may prove less intellectually demanding, and thereby less frustrating than classroom work, for young people who struggle academically. Engaging in physical activity, often with a ‘productive’ outcome, like noticing a visible change in the environment, or growing food, or feeding animals, has proven[vi] emotional and psychological wellbeing outcomes.

Holistic approaches

Many of these interventions pride themselves in a holistic approach to caring for the young people who attend. They will look to ensure the young person feels safe and cared for; there is often a focus on wholesome home-made food, as well as etiquette, such as eating together and using good manners. Staff may tread carefully, recognising that many of these young people have had traumatic experiences with school, and that trust must be built slowly. Other staff might take a more forthright approach to engagement with the young people, believing that creating an atmosphere of mutual respect in which the young people follow the rules and structure of the programme from the outset, are essential to the smooth-running of the intervention. There is clear evidence[vii] that some young people will thrive in these sorts of interventions. For many secondary-school aged pupils (11–16 year-olds), these programmes provide an initial exposure to alternative environments, potential career opportunities, and a chance to be successful in an activity that involves using a different sort of intelligence to that typically drawn on in the classroom. Young people are praised for working hard rather than being clever, for trying rather than achieving and have the opportunity to build positive relationships with adults who are typically working in a field they are passionate about.

Cost considerations

However, these interventions are not simply providing schools and local authorities with an intervention that is successful for many young people, but one that is also ‘cheap’. Of course, if your pupil spends a day a week at a care farm, where they are supervised on a one:four ratio, have access to opportunities to ride horses and engage in animal husbandry, and are fed good quality food, this is far more expensive than a day in school. However, in comparison to ongoing and intensive intervention from child psychologists, or even exclusion in a Pupil Referral Unit, these interventions are low cost. Indeed, they are often so poorly funded that they are being heavily subsidised by farmers who own the land in which the interventions occurs, sometimes forgoing payment for their own time in order to pay staff. As it stands, offering green space interventions is not typically a well-remunerated line of work, and thus is largely the preserve of those passionate about the benefits of engaging with outdoor green space, and the need to engage disadvantaged young people in these environments. However, an educational system built on passion cannot be sustainable, and a key policy focus for educationalists through the next decade must be providing a framework for growing, promoting and sustaining good quality outdoor green space interventions, particularly, and most urgently, for children who are unable to engage effectively in mainstream classrooms.

Concluding remarks

As a researcher of childhood, and as a mum, it’s clear to me that opportunities for children to interact with outdoor green space are a good thing. We should be facilitating opportunities for children to run around and explore the outdoors, not through demonising indoor activities — particularly technological alternatives — nor through adding to parental guilt by vilifying parents for over-timetabling or bubble-wrapping their children. Opportunities for outdoor green space engagement need to be improved through better policy — and therefore curriculum-based — recognition of the holistic benefits of spending time in outdoor green space to children and young people. Curriculum prioritisation of green space activities, including play, practical learning and physical work, would allow schools to protect and develop green corners of their school grounds, access local forest school opportunities, and take trips to outdoor green space. Prioritising our public parks, and providing commensurate resources to organisations conserving and promoting access to these spaces is key. Crucially, the National Curriculum needs to value these sorts of activities, and children’s access to outdoor green spaces, not simply as a mechanism for improving public health, but as a means of supporting social development, children’s independence and problem-solving skills, and perhaps simply, promoting happiness.

Meanwhile, we need to recognise and respect the fact that outdoor green spaces are not a magic pill. For a child that is struggling, living in poverty, experiencing trauma, or simply a child who has no positive prior experience with outdoor green space, or access to it — provision of a walk in the wood, or an afternoon pulling weeds, is not going to make everything all better. Well-funded, professionally developed, and sensitively regulated outdoor interventions can present a fantastic opportunity for therapeutic work with vulnerable young people, but all three of these criteria — funding, expert knowledge and oversight — must be in place. The outdoors can’t be seen as a cheap alternative to medicalised interventions for young people struggling with attention, anger, inter-personal relationships, self-esteem or mental health. To do so devalues not only outdoor sites and professionals working in this field, but also the vulnerable young people themselves.

Afterword: Covid-19 and nature in the National Curriculum

This paper was written well before the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic, the arrival of the concept of social distancing, and the closure of schools to most children. Six weeks after ‘lockdown’, as the government begins to look at ways of easing the economic and social burden or their ‘stay at home’ policy, the outdoors is being turned to as an opportunity for safe person-to-person interaction. I imagine we may well be looking at a future in which ‘outdoors’ and perhaps, in turn, ‘nature’ itself, becomes a far more significant component of school life.

The British Academy has undertaken a programme of work that seeks to re-frame debates around childhood in both the public and policy spaces and break down academic, policy and professional silos in order to explore new conceptualisations of children in policymaking. Find out more about the Childhood Policy Programme.

Subscribe to our newsletter for monthly updates on our Childhood Policy Programme.

[i] Louv, R. (2008). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Algonquin books.

[ii] D’Urso, J., and Schraer, R. (2017) 10 charts that tell the story of Britain’s Roads, BBC News Online, available: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-42182497, accessed 30.05.2019.

[iii] Villano, D. (2017), The Kids Really Are All Right, Pacific Standard, available: https://psmag.com/education/the-kids-really-are-all-right-58651, accessed 20.05.2019.

[iv] McCurdy, L. E., Winterbottom, K. E., Mehta, S. S., & Roberts, J. R. (2010). Using nature and outdoor activity to improve children’s health. Current problems in pediatric and adolescent health care, 40(5), 102–117.

[v] Balmford, A., Clegg, L., Coulson, T., & Taylor, J. (2002). Why conservationists should heed Pokémon. Science, 295(5564), 2367–2367.

[vi] Cipriani, J., Benz, A., Holmgren, A., Kinter, D., McGarry, J., & Rufino, G. (2017). A systematic review of the effects of horticultural therapy on persons with mental health conditions. Occupational Therapy in Mental Health, 33(1), 47–69.

[vii] Leck, C., Upton, D., & Evans, N. (2015). Growing well‐beings: The positive experience of care farms. British journal of health psychology, 20(4), 745–762.

--

--

--

Over the last 150 years, the experience of being a child in the United Kingdom has changed hugely in terms of how children are viewed, valued and cared for. During this period, policymaking and research relating to children have also undergone dramatic changes.

Recommended from Medium

You Snooze, You Can’t Lose: How Thrive AZ Founder Teri Vogel Stays Strong for Arizona’s Families in…

Intellectual Disabilities

Flattening the Curve on School Trauma

EveryDay Strong: Remembering the good times gives your child fuel to be happy

Lockdown as a new parent

Stop the Insanity! Why Our Family Started a Technology Diet

Thank You for Coming Back

The 7 Biggest Mistakes Most New Daycare Owners Make

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
The British Academy

The British Academy

We are the UK’s national academy for the humanities and social sciences. We mobilise these disciplines to understand the world and shape a brighter future.

More from Medium

This Day in History

Then She Was Gone Book Review

Is this the time for Green Aviation?

Crazy brownie