Every Child Outdoors?

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Martin Harper's blog

I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Every Child Outdoors?

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If you have the memory of an elephant, you might recall that last summer I had an enjoyable day at Rainham with a local school and their local MP, John Cruddas.  This was part of our festival of field teaching and it helped reinforce the importance of people – young and old – getting out and enjoying wildlife in their every day lives.  And, of course, this goes hand in hand with the need to protect and create places full of wildlife for people to enjoy - which has been the focus for our campaign battles over the past few weeks. 

At the heart of the RSPB’s work is the desire to connect more children to nature as part of their every day lives – or, more rightly, preventing them from becoming disconnected from it – and inspiring them to become the environmental leaders of tomorrow.  As a Dad, I do my bit, but the learner plates still flash on my back.

Our ‘Every Child Outdoors’  report in 2010 brought together evidence of the benefits to children of having contact with nature. This research was from schools inspectorates – like Ofsted – and leading academics. It not only showed that contact with nature helps children with their education, but it also highlighted the mental and physical health benefits, and the development of social skills.

I have always been convinced that schools must play some sort of role in all this (particulary as some parents are not around as much as they should be). At the very least, schools can provide a safety net to ensure the most under-privileged children can experience and learn about the natural world.

It is hugely encouraging that the Government’s own expert panel on the National Curriculum Review (in England) recently suggested that it “considers a recommendation that the school curriculum should also contribute to environmental ‘stewardship’” (alongside economic, social, cultural and personal purposes). We agree.  And we'll being doing what we can to promote this over the coming months.

We also warmly welcomed the reduction in the health and safety bureaucracy required for teachers to actually get children out of the classroom, and the support given to this from the HSE last summer. Along with investments by organisations like ourselves into the ‘kite mark’ Quality Badge for Learning Outside the Classroom, it really is much easier for schools to teach outdoors than just a few years ago.

But it’s not just about schools, nor putting more expectation on them and their staff. For starters, we know that it is also critical for children to have nature near to their home if they are really going to connect and value it, and for their families and communities to encourage that.

This approach has been reinforced today with a welcome new report from the National Trust – ‘Natural Childhood' – written by naturalist, author and TV producer Stephen Moss. It again highlights the very real threat of nature-deficit disorder amongst young people, and asks what can be done to tackle the problem. To try to answer that question, there is also a two month inquiry online asking what people think the solutions are to the ‘extinction of experience’ we are faced with.

We will be contributing the RSPB’s insights and experience to this inquiry. But this is rightly a challenge for all of us, so please take a look and share your thoughts too.

Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

  • Hi Peter, just to say that we are currently running a poetry competition  - the closing date is 30th April so you still have time to enter. We are very excited to be working in partnership with leading UK Poetry publisher, The Rialto, and also to have Sir Andrew Motion and Mark Cocker as our judges.

    Full details of the competition can be found here:


    We have also held children's competitions through Wildlife Explorers.

    If you would like further info please do contact me at matt.howard@rspb.org.uk.

    Best regards,

    Matt Howard

  • Yes, Martin, I passionately agree! It is vital that our youngsters learn to connect with and appreciate the natural world around them, wherever they live. They are the future, not us.

    We have a local NR ideal for education purposes, and that was one of the original intentions when it was set up. Now, however, the children would have to be in wellies all the time to avoid the excrement from the dozens of dogs taken there every day, and not cleaned up. It is run by the local WT and district council, neither of whom make any effort to sort the problem. (Of course, whilst dogs 'perform' there, they don't have to be chased for messing up the footpaths!) Last year, fires were started that killed some wildlife. Doesn't this mean we really need to teach our children how to respect their environment whilst they are still young, before it's too late?

  • Peter - what a good suggestion - I shall pass it on.  But sorry that you were unsuccessful in your application.  I think it took me three goes to get a job here...

  • I welcome this work and report. It is profoundly important. This is the first time that I commend the work of Stephen Moss and  I am truely glad to do so. However I can not resist noting that his work as a BBC producer has always edited out climate change most notably in the Nature of Britain Series presented by the climate sceptic Titchmarsh and likewise negative impacst of CC from Heron Central in RSPB magazine !

    However here he is touching on something really profound and important. It is my belief and I can not produce evidence to support this but that higher rates of mental illness in the afro caribean community are linked to alienation from nature. It was my love of nature that helped me heal a quite profoundly disordered and abusive childhood and I do not know how the ethnic communities of our urban centres survive substantially without nature. I know that it challenges the sense of "home" for many "immigrants" to leave the city even for a day and enter the largely white and somewhat racist world of "the English countryside. I reiterate my view that key here is the right of alll to "green space" and that planning should be defined by this allocation, not access designed by class and privelege and that is the defining issue around "Green Belts".

    I would say that I recently applied for a job with RSPB selling its memberships; sadly I did not even get an interview; such are the privileges and humiliations of age. In my application I advanced the idea of a wildlife /landscape/ecology poetry competition/festival centred on the Somerset Levels and annually linked to the Bristol BBC Photographer of the Year.

    The Somerset Levels are extra-ordinary in that its unique ecology is intimately linked to a deep and profound sense of English history; Joseph of Aremathea and Glastonbury and Arthur and Avalon. The reed is also a symbol of profound significance in the Islamic poetry of the saint Rumi and anyone who has listened to its murmerings can only echo his profound thoughts.

    My suggestion to RSPB was that there is no poetry competition (to my knowlege) that celebrates the natural world and our British heritage from Clare to Yeats, to Manley Hopkins, Edward Grey, Lawrence, Ted Hughes et al. I suggested in my application the development of such a poetry competition would enhance the profile of RSPB.

    I raise the idea again.