The UK deficit hit the headlines this July with the announcement of a 0.7% shrinkage in the economy. Beyond the economic short-fall however, there appears to be another, more sinister deficit at work; one which is thought to be costing the nation in terms of physical and mental health, compromising well-being whilst causing long-term social and psychological damage to our youngsters; this deficit involves the shrinkage of our children’s natural experiential landscapes.
As play, youth and environment workers at the Heartwood Project, a woodland based initiative close to the city of Bath, it has grown increasingly evident to us over recent years that a paradigm shift has taken place in the experience of childhood in the UK. The National Trust has recently commissioned a research initiative entitled ‘Natural Childhood’ which considers the presence, causes and consequences of ‘Nature -Deficit Disorder’; not a condition which commands a catchy acronym and a prescription from the doctor, rather it is descriptive of a limited interaction with the natural world and calls quite simply for a remedial return to nature. The term was coined by Richard Louv in 2005 in his seminal book ‘Last Child in the Woods’, and now Stephen Moss, author of the National Trust report, has reaffirmed the argument. Examining three specific categories: ‘physical health problems including obesity, mental health problems, and children’s growing inability to assess risks to themselves and others’, Moss has affirmed that ‘a generation of children appears to be suffering from a lack of contact with the natural world, with serious consequences both for themselves and for society as a whole.’1
The report cites the ‘Good Childhood Inquiry’ which reported in 2009 that children in the UK were experiencing an ‘epidemic of mental illness’ and revealed that around 35,000 children in England are being prescribed anti-depressants. Such disheartening news is increasingly being linked to childhood disconnection with nature. It seems there is no substitute for the teachings of the natural world. Nature’s lessons are direct, multi-sensory, exciting and real, breaking through the often over-structured play and learning experiences of many children and young people today. The freedom to imagine, experiment, create, take appropriate risks, wander, dream and play is inherent to outdoor play. Nature does not offer an instruction manual or limit our sensory stimulation but instead allows the process of discovery to unfold, encouraging balanced personal development and health.
Whilst the National Trust research is focused upon children, the problem may not be exclusive to childhood. If our children are feeling the negative effects of nature deprivation, perhaps adult well-being is also suffering from this absence. Can we view the tightly structured nature of modern childhood as indicative of a society-wide deficit? Is this phenomenon symptomatic of the harsh reality that we are increasingly being hemmed in by modernity, disconnected from nature and literally losing our senses?
‘Children live through their senses. Sensory experiences link the child’s exterior world with their interior, hidden, affective world. Since the natural environment is the principal source of sensory stimulation, freedom to explore and play with the outdoor environment through the senses in their own space and time is essential for healthy development of an interior life…This type of self- activated, autonomous interaction is what we call free play.’2
At the Heartwood Project we believe that children and adults alike need ‘free play’, access to natural, outdoor spaces, and the opportunity to interact and learn with natural materials for their general well-being and health. We have been working with children and young people in schools, city farms, urban parks and woodlands for the last ten years and now, with the launch of the Heartwood Project and its fantastic woodland facilities, we are able to work with adults as well.
Whilst offering children and young people’s days in which we strongly advocate self-led learning and play, combining experiences of woodcraft, bushcraft and trekking; we are also working in partnership with the Cotswolds Conservation Board as part of their Rural Skills Programme, offering courses in traditional crafts such as green-wood working, spoon carving, rustic chair and stool making, charcoal burning and bowery. The courses take place in our secluded woodland workshop and are catered for from the cob-oven in Heartwood’s rustic kitchen. These activities all stem from the foundational objectives of the project: working to the sustainable management plan for the woodland, and reviving traditional woodland crafts as well as an understanding and interest in woodland livelihoods within our communities. We aim to maximise access and involvement in the whole process for everyone: ‘Woody Wednesdays’, a weekly woodland conservation volunteering opportunity offers visitors insight and direct experience of sustainable woodland management. Our volunteers and students frequently comment on the sense of well-being and the health benefits gained in their time at the Heartwood Project.
Despite the gloomy deficit analysis; the UK undoubtedly has a love of its natural spaces. Caroline Spelman announced in early July that there would be no sell-off of England’s publicly owned forests and woodlands; the sheer volume of public out-cry on this matter testifies to Britain’s love for the natural landscape.
Projects such as Heartwood present a clear and positive model for the future which provide access, experience, adventure, play, learning and discovery for all ages, whilst simultaneously demonstrating how our woodlands can be managed sustainably for future generations; where care of people and land can be combined, we can all begin to top up the deficit and come to our senses.
Better still, come and visit the woodland for some direct experience!
- Stephen Moss, Natural Childhood, A National Trust Report.
- Robin C. Moore, The Need for Nature : A Childhood Right.