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  • Writer's pictureKristyna Skriczka

Children in the woods: the silver bullet to achieve sustainability?

Drawing the connection between children’s school day and the future of humanity. I illustrate and evidence why spending time in Nature during every school day needs to be seen as essential to the development of a well-balanced, resilient, kind and sustainable human-being, not as a waste of valuable learning time.

Some time ago, in my hometown, dark clouds of communism were still hanging in the air but brave voices were growing stronger, slowly but surely making way for new clean air. I was six years old, my sister was four. Once a week, every week, my mum would finish work, pick me up, then pick up my sister from a different place, and make a long journey from one end of the city to the other. Taking two buses, one little hand in each of hers. We were going to Scout. It was worth the risk (communist party was not a fan) and it was worth the hassle.

Being a Scout meant regular weekend trips. I would pack a rucksack: my sleeping bag, half a tent (a piece of heavy fabric with buttons-you needed two put together to make a two person tent), enough food for two days, a water bottle and an aluminium cooking pot, a hunting knife (yes, a six year old had a hunting knife) and a few extra bits. I was a skinny child, all that you could see from a distance was this large bag on thin bony legs… I carried all I needed by myself. I had to plan and think for myself.

Two scouts outside a tent
Me and my friend on a month long Scout camp outside our tent

On hot summer days, walking through forests and fields to get to our camp, the trees would provide much needed shade during some parts of our journey. Passing meadows with no shade at the sound of loud crickets I remember thinking: How could I make the heat of the trek more bearable? I still recall one idea: squashable tubes filled with water integrated into your shoes so every step you take results in a cooling shower. It would also have a sun shade. As I got hotter and my bag felt heavier, in a desperate attempt to imagine what it would be like to be cooled, I added a roof and walls to my prototype mobile shelter.

Then I figured it would all be way too heavy to carry so thought about converting a bike for that purpose. But then realized that a bike would not manage the terrain we were navigating.

Once we arrived at the campsite, taking off the backpack felt really good. Most have heard of “runner’s high”. Exercise has an immediate effect on mood and cognitive functions in humans.

Our ‘campsite’ was a place in the woods.. No toilet, no showers, no running water. I wonder how many children (and how many adults) nowadays would be able to answer this question:

What is the first thing you do when you arrive at the place which will be your kitchen, bed and toilet for the night?

The answer is: have a very good look around. Memorise as much as you can. Because when you leave, the place should look exactly the same as when you arrived. Leave no trace! This basic rule is born out of knowledge that humans are not separate from, or superior to, Nature. This basic rule communicates that plants, soil, animals, insects and everything living has value. That Nature is not out there for us to use, damage and leave behind when we are done with it.

Never mind my cooling mobile shelter was never built. My brain got a workout. It is amazing how long and strenuous walk in nature fuels imagination. “Walking opens up the free flow of ideas…”. Creativity is often cited as one of the most desirable skills for the future. No doubt it will be crucial in attempts to mitigate climate breakdown. Yet our schools are not exactly famous for nurturing young creative souls nor are they well equipped for enabling children access to Nature.

Children in cities now spend much of their time in man-made spaces devoid of anything green or living (apart from some humans). The fact that some children today think tomatoes grow underground is alarming enough. In the UK, Organic Chickens get better provision of outdoor space than nursery school children.

  • One report showed 75% of children in the UK are getting less time outside than prison inmates.

  • The average American child spends about 4 to 7 minutes a day playing outside and over 7 hours a day in front of a screen.

There is no app for lighting a fire, only skill, concentration and patience. These trips were hard work but also a lot of fun and above all, priceless character building learning opportunities. Sense of achievement after hard work boosts confidence, a valuable asset for a developing child navigating an uncertain world. We have a child mental health crisis on our hands and all children would only benefit from activities that provide opportunities to build self-esteem and resilience.

As is often the case, it is those least privileged that carry the biggest burden. There is a clear link between poverty and low-self esteem. Children with lower self-esteem are more likely to show mental illness such as depression and are at risk of developing psychological and social problems…it is important for children to accumulate a series of successful experiences to create a positive concept of self.” Spending time in Nature, with the support of gentle, self-assured, compassionate and kind facilitators, offers an ideal opportunity. Building a place to sleep in, cooking dinner and digging a hole for n.2 business are a series of small accomplishments that yield a real tangible result with immediate benefit.

We live in a world where developers get away with taking away the only green space many children and families can access. Those least privileged find it hardest to access opportunities for spending time in Nature. This is why schools can play such a pivotal role in remedying the situation by prioritising time in Nature.

Who needs to read all the research about the benefits of learning in Nature when we (hopefully still) have some common sense? What could be more helpful in realising our own vulnerability and dependence on Nature than sleeping in the forest, drinking water from the streams and picking berries for dinner? How can a child learn to ever truly understand the fragility of natural ecosystems when they never have the opportunity to truly experience it? To marvel at it, learn from it?

Despite evidence that learning in Nature encourages better attendance, reduces bullying and improves pupil motivation for learning and the positive impact on teachers’ motivation, wellbeing and job satisfaction, in most schools it is business as usual. Being ‘outside’ during a school day consists of 15 minutes of running around a concrete playground (and when it rains children watch TV!). One study suggests that “even when schools are within walking distance to green spaces or have access to such spaces on the school site, factors such as the pressure of delivering the National Curriculum and teachers’ lack of engagement with outdoor learning may limit opportunities to access nature.”

How can we ever function as a society in harmony with Nature when the systems set up to support the youngest in our society are based on values of separateness, and ignorance of our dependence on natural ecosystems. This doctrine of human separateness from the natural world is what got us in the ecological mess we are in now. We want to ‘tackle’ climate change as if Nature were the enemy, we bathe ‘in’ the forest framing woodlands as another hype health trend one can buy into, we ‘bring the outdoors in’ signalling that Nature is something that can be owned and manipulated.

Children internalise social norms and values as they develop. The adults around them model these values through their everyday actions. Children can’t learn that we are not separate from Nature if they are consistently being separated from Nature by walls, halls and computer screens. Additionally, a recent UCL study suggests that there is a link between children’s access to green spaces and their approach to risk taking. In this study long-term greenspace deprivation was related to children being more sensitive to immediate reward and less concerned about future risk. Do we want our future decision makers to be more worried about the money in their pocket (immediate reward) than the quality of Earth’s air and water in the future (future risk)?

Schools need to position connection to Nature as being essential to the development of a well-rounded, sustainable, healthy, human-being; not as an add-on, nice to have, squeeze-it-in-there, forest-bathing exercise which takes place once a week for an hour on a school organised and proudly advertised ‘welly walk’ initiative (yes it is a thing!). Prioritising spending time in what is currently left of Nature and learning from and about it, will help foster the natural intrinsic drive to protect it and to want to live sustainably. It will contribute to children’s mental health, resilience and self-esteem. It will contribute to society. It will help everyone.

Having positive regular experiences in Nature contributes to shaping a worldview defined by deep understanding of interconnectedness, humility and respect for everything living. This can not happen in the classroom, it happens outdoors, it happens when you learn about soil and flowers by planting a seed and caring for the plant. It happens when you experience life in the forest, respecting all that is around you.

It happens when you dig a hole for your number two and cover it up. And you do it not because an adult told you so under a threat of punishment or a promise of a reward. You do it because you know the adults dig their own holes too. You do it because you care and because leaving it out in the open for the person after you to step in it simply does not exist as an option in your world. Just imagine what the world would be like if everyone cleared up their mess and carried their own weight.

There is clearly no silver bullet to achieve sustainability. But there is hope that by fostering healthy minds, humility and respect we can begin to move in the right direction. This is a call to think about what values are being normalised by excluding so many children from having regular, meaningful access to Nature and what the impact of that is now and will be in the future. Children must not be alienated from Nature by mechanisms embedded in society. In any small way we can, we should all prioritise Nature in Children’s lives, now and every day.

This blog is published on my site "Away & Here". My book "Tractor Worries" introduces children to mindful breathing for self-regulation and demonstrates the power of creative-problem solving. It is available to buy from Amazon, Waterstones and other online retailers.


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