Tony Whitehead: WIld Thing project recognises that playing outdoors is in children's nature
It is hard to imagine a great childhood that would not involve being outdoors, being active and exploring natural places. From playing conkers and wading through fallen leaves in the autumn, to discovering the magic of a rockpool at the seaside, those are the memories of glorious days we want our children to have.
I have spent my working life introducing children to nature – with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, but mostly with RSPB. To a certain extent I was successful. I was responsible for Wildlife Explorers, RSPB's junior club with more than 200,000 members. Yet no matter how much effort the conservation movement put into working with children, the big picture was depressing. Year-on-year research showed that children were spending less time outside in nature.
So what has gone wrong? Like so many other problems, this has happened through people acting reasonably and with the best of intentions. The first duty of any parent or carer of children is to keep them safe. Our natural reaction when faced with threats such as traffic, stranger danger or harmful accidents is to keep our children away from the threats. Job done.
Well not quite. At this point it's important to look at the other side of the coin. What have we lost? What are the consequences of our decisions? All experts agree that children and nature belong together. At its simplest there is the huge amount of fun to be had exploring, discovering, climbing and digging – the endlessly fascinating world of nature. But that is only the tip of the iceberg.
Active engagement with nature is good for children's health. We all now know that a sedentary lifestyle for children is a health time-bomb with dire consequences in later life. Equally importantly, regular contact with nature is good for children's mental well-being, with its associated benefits for social development and decision making. Many education experts argue that the natural environment is the very best place for children to learn and instinctively all parents know that being in nature is good for the whole family.
The problem seems to be that while everyone agrees that being in nature is good for children, we have failed to get absence from nature recognised as a real problem that needs to be surmounted. Perhaps nature professionals have made the natural world seem complicated and out of reach. Perhaps we have talked too much about the threats to nature and not enough about its joys. Whatever the reason, it is now time for a change.
If we are to stop and ideally reverse the trend of children spending less time outside, we have to convince people that this is a big problem which needs big solutions.
But there is hope. The creation of the The Wild Network and its first product, the feature-length documentary film Project Wild Thing, is all about bringing about real and lasting change – beginning the journey to reconnect kids with nature. Project Wild Thing takes a fresh look at this modern challenge of getting kids reconnected with playing in the natural world. Expect to laugh and be moved as the director and star, David Bond, discovers just how important time in nature should be for his own children. It is impossible to see this film without concluding that this is an important issue which we all, individually and collectively as a society, need to address.
This is only the start. The Wild Network has enormous ambitions. We want to put children's disconnection with nature firmly on the national agenda, working with people and organisations to help get children outdoors and into nature. We want to make it as easy as possible for parents to get their children outside in fun, safe and local green spaces.
I am incurable optimist. The Wild Network already has hundreds of organisations and thousands of people signed up. These organisations and individuals recognise that this is a problem bigger than any of us. It is only if we can build real momentum that we have a chance to make a difference.
So please do three things:
See Project Wild Thing. I know that you will enjoy it.
Go to www.projectwild thing.com and sign up as an individual or an organisation – it's completely free.
But most of all if you are looking after a child – go outside and have fun.