Return of the wild child

It was not until he strapped a video camera to his four-year-old daughter’s head that the film-maker David Bond realised quite how little time she was spending outdoors.

“Ivy wasn’t going outside much,” he says. “I could tell. I just knew. But I didn’t know how bad it was.”

The camera revealed that Ivy was outside for just 4% of her day. Her time was spent mostly in the house or car, with a heavy reliance on TV and digital media.

Bond decided he had to do something so he appointed himself Mother Nature’s notional marketing manager, and started a campaign to get his own children and other people’s, into the fresh air.

By the time his film, Project Wild Thing, hits cinemas in October, parents who have struggled to entertain their children during the summer holidays without plonking them in front of a screen will be eager to learn how he does it.

Not everybody will want to dress up in a squirrel suit as Bond did, or debate at London’s Speakers’ Corner the relative importance of increased access to nature with Socialist Workers more interested in bringing an end to capitalism. But there are many easier options, including activities put together by the National Trust, a UK preservation charity, which has joined forces with Bond to create a Wild Network to entice children into the natural world.

Virtually everyone agrees — parents, teachers, doctors, social workers, conservationists and the kids themselves — that children would benefit from more freedom to explore nature and the outdoors. Since the 1970s, however, they have become increasingly shut in.

The area around their home where they are allowed to roam unsupervised has shrunk by almost 90%, according to the National Trust. Digital media and TV often get the blame. But Tim Gill, author of No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society, argues that technology is a symptom rather than a cause of children’s lack of access to nature.

“Because kids can’t get outside and see their friends in real life, a market has been created that keeps them engaged and connected,” he says.

Stephen Moss, a writer, naturalist and father of five, identified several contributory factors in a recent report for the National Trust. These include the danger from traffic, which limits children’s ability to venture outside; an obsessive pursuit of zero risk by the health and safety lobby; and parental fears of stranger danger. Then there are accidents like those last week, when teenagers drowned in a river and a water-filled quarry, which reinforce the perception of outdoor adventures as dangerous.

EMILY GOODALL, 36, grew up on a farm in Scotland but on moving to London, where she runs her own retail business, she says she became neurotic and over-protective towards her children Matilda, 6, and William, 4. “There are so many horror stories of children being snatched, getting run over and so on,” she says.

Children are quick to pick up on our anxieties. Bond sometimes plays a game with Ivy, now 6, and his son Albie, 4.

“I say, where do you want to be, a deep ocean or a high mountain? Albie can never choose but Ivy always thinks about the dangers, and I think, woah, you’re giving me a health and safety analysis. But that’s what adults do. We worry about traffic and crime and leaving windows open and worrying they’ll fall out, and germs. Life with children can easily fall into a litany of fears about things going wrong.”

Not all children are kept in. Carlos Kidel and his wife Jane are doctors who live in Childs Hill, north London. At the end of their garden is a quiet lane called Church Walk, free from traffic and full of wildlife. The Kidels’ older children, Manolo, 5, and Lucia, 4, play there with their neighbours.

“It’s a bit like playtime with monkeys,” says Carlos Kidel. “The others hear what’s going on and gradually all these heads start popping up. Having a space like this gives children the ability to enjoy their surroundings and not need anything extra. They don’t rely on expensive toys, the internet or gadgets. They use their imagination.”

Like many similar fragments of green space across the country, Church Walk, the site of a former vicarage, is threatened by a new development.

If Barnet council allows the new building to go ahead, the Kidels will have to bring their children back inside, into what Richard Louv, the author of Last Child in the Woods, has described as “well-meaning, protective house arrest”.

The odd thing is that the most dangerous place for a child to be is at home. Three times as many children are hospitalised after falling out of bed as after falling out of trees. Half of all fatal accidents to children are due to house fires.

“The whole idea of sitting indoors and being protected is a joke,” says Bond. “We have obesity, attention deficit disorder, depression from the lack of time outside, vitamin D deficiency. It’s beyond a joke.”

Dr William Bird, medical adviser to the RSPB, says the outdoors is “a great outpatient department whose therapeutic value is yet to be fully realised”.

Grandparents seem less likely to stay in. When Ivy was with Bond’s mother, she went out more. “[Mum] has this memory of outside being a great place. So she goes out,” he says. “That has really inspired me to do the same, to put the children outside as a first decision rather than, can I find a book for them to colour in?

“The real discovery for me was that this isn’t just about children’s tastes. It’s about adults, and what we choose to show children. When children are young they want to be like you. If you love something and go on about it then they do too.”
Green campaigner and writer George Monbiot found himself yearning for a bit more wildness recently when he realised the challenges in his life were largely limited to chores such as loading a dishwasher.

“I wanted only to satisfy my craving for a richer, rawer life than I had recently lived,” he writes in his book, Feral, “an enhanced opportunity to engage with and delight in the natural world.” Monbiot might satisfy his craving if he popped along to the National Trust, which has recently started putting up signs saying “Please walk on the grass”, and “Please do touch”. It has published a list of “50 things to do before you’re 11¾”, such as snail racing, building a dam and feeding a bird from your hand.

If that is not enough, Monbiot might like to get stuck into the BBC’s Summer of Wildlife, which is using TV, radio and the internet to teach children about nature and engage them in “citizen science” projects with wildlife organisations.

These include a Garden BioBlitz, in which you find as many plants and animals as you can in your garden and log the results; and surveys to record butterflies, sick trees, kestrels, bats, creatures that live in ponds, creatures that leave footprints, jellyfish, basking sharks and flying ants.

“In Britain we are more likely to build a corridor for ducks to cross a busy road than for children,” says Bond.

A SHIFT does seem to be taking place. Councils are moving away from the health and safety obsession that has dominated their playgrounds. In Islington, north London, there are tree houses and rope swings in parks, which were unheard of a few years ago.

Goodall’s children have started going to Wimbledon Common every week as part of a scheme run by their nursery school. “They go in all weather, snow, thunderstorms, whatever. When they are there they are allowed to do what they want.

“My children came back with tales of building houses out of sticks, dissecting rabbit poo, poking around in holes to see what lives there and stirring mud with wooden spoons.

“It had an amazing effect. Matilda became so much more confident and independent. I will never forget going along to one session and seeing her up to her waist in a ditch with a boy she had become friends with, covered in mud and whooping with joy.”

As part of his campaign to market nature, Bond cocreated an app, Wild Time, full of ideas to get children engaged. He took it to an estate in Tottenham, north London, one of the sites of rioting in 2011.

“We felt like drug pushers — we were going around saying, try this, try this, it’s going to get you hooked.” It was not the only time he felt self-conscious while trying to get children involved. “Going around dressed as a squirrel kids would flock to me. And parents would ask, have you got a CRB check? I suddenly realised I was a man dressed as a squirrel trying to lure kids into the woods.”

“There were screams of joy from the kids, some of them as old as 11, who had never climbed trees before. They have loads of trees on the estate, but it has never been a thing they do. Hearing their whoops of joy was amazing,” says Bond.

“What they liked best was ‘Who can roll down the hill fastest?’ I don’t know when you last rolled down a hill but I did it. People worry about rolling in dog shit, or getting muddy. And you get funny looks, as a grown man, rolling down a hill. But I have a thick skin. I have a righteous sense that I’m on a good path. And I feel sorry for people who think it’s odd. It came back to me, as I was doing it, how much fun it is.”

Written with Francesca Angelini.
1637 words. First published 21 July 2013. © Times Newspapers Ltd.