Sunday, 25 May 2014

Learning through landscapes – the fierce urgency for natural play

Guest Blog featured on: Project Wild Thing

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

In Western countries, the last century has seen staggering changes in the nature of children’s play, including ever decreasing opportunities for outdoor play. A culture of fear, over-organisation and the institutionalisation of childhood has all had a significant impact on childhood play time.
Schools have a vital role in reversing this trend, through both the attitudes of teachers and the design of school grounds - which play a crucial role in not only the promotion of, but also the type of play and physical activity children engage in. School grounds should be designed in a way that promotes self-initiated, uninterrupted, creative natural play.

Natural environments are recognised as fostering higher levels of physical activity than traditional playgrounds. When playgrounds contain natural, wild areas it provides children more incentives for play, and it has been observed that children play more enthusiastically in these environments. Less structured and creative play not only promotes social interaction with peers but  when compared with traditional playgrounds, children in naturally designed play areas exhibit orderly and long-lasting play in mixed age groups, having a further positive influence on social competencies.

As well as having a positive impact on social behaviours, spending regular time in natural environments enhances the development of motor abilities and improves concentration. Significant improvements in balance and coordination in children who played regularly in natural environments compared with children who used traditional playgrounds, has also been observed.
Play within a natural environment promotes and fosters progression in so many developmental domains because of its holistic approach. Promoting natural play in childhood realises the need for holistic, rich interactions with our environment, as well as increasing our physical activity levels and enhancing social competencies.

As a result, we could begin to see a reverse in the worrying trends of increasing childhood obesity, attention deficit disorders and mental health problems. I also believe that children would develop an even greater passion for learning, and schools would be a place where their creativity and thirst for adventure has a chance to come alive.

A more holistic approach to learning nurtures and encourages engagement in all areas of the curriculum. Schools need to feel empowered to deliver this holistic style of teaching by being given the freedom to organise and deliver the curriculum in a way that best suits their circumstances and learners.

The wheels are turning and footprints are being made, we must keep moving in the right direction, a good work has already begun. Voices are being heard and governments are beginning to recognise that changes must be made for the health and well-being of the nation.

We must grasp the need for a child nature reunion, and be a driving force in encouraging and implementing the changes that need to be made, both in and out of schools. We must continually strive for a future, or perhaps more importantly – a present, where we realise the fierce urgency for natural play, embrace the possibilities of our surrounding landscape to see a real change in the lives of our children, ourselves and the environment.

Support children’s need for learning outside the classroom by visiting here

Menna Pritchard - University of Wales, Trinity Saint David
Menna's recently completed dissertation focuses on natural play in childhood. She is soon to graduate from the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David where she has completed the BA Outdoor Education programme and where she hopes to continue her research through the MA.
The programme of study offers a multidisciplinary approach to Outdoor Education which draws upon education, leadership and environmental theory to explore the potential of the natural environment to offer an alternative, experientially focused approach to learning. Visit:
Follow Menna @goingitalone, University @TSDSHOE for more.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

An environment in which to contemplate infinity and eternity - a look at 'nature deficit disorder' and the extinction of experience ...

The following is another excerpt/literature review from a paper I am currently writing "Into the Wild - the Fierce Urgency for Natural Play", looking into the causes of our disconnection from nature and exploring the consequences of a lack of natural playtime.

Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder
Richard Louv (2005)

Building on the ideas of naturalists such as John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Henry David Thoreau, and supported by more recent researchers and writers, ‘Last Child in the Woods’ is Richard Louv’s contribution to a body of work exploring our disconnection from nature and the worrying consequences of this.

Louv argues that children’s disconnection from nature is evident in the rise of childhood obesity, attention deficit disorder, and depression. These issues are also explored by Sue Palmer’s research in ‘Toxic Childhood’ who suggests that 'every year children become more distractable, impulsive and self-obsessed - less able to learn, to enjoy life, to thrive socially’ (Palmer, 2007).

Perhaps one of the most worrying statistics of recent years is the claim that our children may be the first generation at risk of having a shorter lifespan than their parents (Ludwig, 2007). In 2012, the ‘Designed to move: A Physical Activity Action Agenda’ report was released at the 8th Annual Clinton Global Initiative meeting. The report found that in just two generations, the rate of active play, physical education and overall physical activity has dropped by 20% in the U.K., 32% in the U.S. and 45% in China. It states that ‘today's 10 year olds are the first generation expected to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents’. The agenda puts the importance of play in plain terms, with two “asks”: to create early positive experiences for children, and to integrate physical activity into everyday life (Designed to Move, 2012).

Today’s children are encountering numerous health problems due to a sedentary lifestyle and physical inactivity – chronic conditions such as childhood obesity, asthma, and attention-deficit disorder have all increased over the past few decades (Perrin, 2007). These chronic conditions can then lead to pulmonary, cardiovascular, and mental health problems in adulthood. A report by the National Environmental Education Foundation (2010) states that outdoor activity in the natural environment has taken a back seat to television, video games, the computer, and a demanding schoolwork and extracurricular schedule. As a result, today’s children and young people are far more sedentary and losing contact time with the natural environment that can be so beneficial for their health and well-being. Time in nature should not just be viewed as leisure time but as an essential investment in our children’s health (Louv, 2005).

In a study investigating the links between the natural environment, biodiversity and mental health, Bird (2007) states that children increase their physical activity levels when outdoors and that they are instinctively attracted to nature. He also suggests that children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) may benefit from more time in contact with nature. Louv presents interviews with parents of children with ADHD whose symptoms were calmed by natural settings, alongside a wealth of international research on the benefits of nature for those with ADHD (Louv, 2005, p.107-108). He argues that more time in nature, combined with less television and more stimulating play and educational settings, will go a long way towards reducing attention deficits in children. The benefits of natural play, alongside increased physical activity levels, can be seen in the development of a positive self-image, confidence in one’s abilities and experience of dealing with uncertainty - transferable skills that can be important in helping young people face the wider world and develop enhanced social skills (Ward Thompson et al, 2006).

So what happens when we deprive our children of these powerful learning opportunities and experiences? Louv is perhaps best known for coining the term ‘Nature-Deficit Disorder’- the intention behind this phrase being not to present a medical diagnosis but to find a shorthand description of the varying cost of humans’ disconnection from nature.

This term has recently seen a resurgence in the UK with the creation and release of ‘Project Wild Thing’ a 2013 film by David Bond. In it Bond explores the idea of a nature-child reunion. He laments his children’s waking hours being ‘dominated by a cacophony of marketing, and a screen dependence threatening to turn them into glassy-eyed zombies’ (Bond, 2013). His concerns are similar to that of Louv, who expresses distress at the idea of children today being more likely to prefer playing indoors than outside and who would find it easier to name cartoon characters than native species.

‘Last child in the Woods’ also complements the work of contemporary nature writers, such as Robert Michael Pyle, David Orr and Gary Paul Nabhan, who have written about the extinction of children’s experiences in nature. Orr suggests that children’s view of nature is increasingly distant, abstract and utilitarian and that ‘however affluent, their lives are impoverished by diminishing contact with nature’. He believes that when children’s imaginations are stimulated by screens, they are worse off ecologically, socially and spiritually (Orr, 2002). Pyle (1993) argues that one of the greatest causes of the ecological crisis is society’s ‘alienation’ from nature and that the extinction of experience can cause a cycle of disaffection that has disastrous consequences. Although we don’t yet have concrete evidence of the long-term effects of excessive materialism, Orr suggests that its hallmarks are ‘shallowness and the loss of deeper feelings having to do with a secure and stable identity rooted in the self, relationships and place’ (Orr, 2002).

Direct learning experiences in the outdoors can help develop our sense of place – which in turn can increase our concern for sustainability. Lugg (2007) highlights the importance of experiential learning in promoting education for sustainability. She argues that direct contact with the landscape is essential for people to reconnect with the natural world. This is supported by research carried out by Farnum, Hall and Kruger (2005), who discovered that ‘most place attachment studies assessing environmental concern or stewardship show that people who are more place attached to areas also exhibit greater concern about the ecological well-being of the area’.

In order to make the right choices for the future of the environment, we have to understand how nature supports our day to day lives and we also need to have a goal for what we want to achieve (Natural England, 2009) – ultimately, a greater concern for sustainability supported by a deeper sense of place, achieved through connecting with and learning from nature.

Perhaps where Louv stumbles in this work, while presenting his case passionately, is that he almost condemns the nature deprived to a life of impairment, both physical and cognitive. It could be argued that such condemnation of those that do not have access to a rich experience of the natural world is both demoralising and patronizing, and it lacks any form of recognition for other ways for us to improve our health and well-being. Schalit (2009) suggests that many ‘exquisitely sensitive and creative people who grew up enduring the sensory assaults of our cities’ asphalt canyons’ exist and that those individuals sought solace in places such as museums and libraries. Perhaps the reserve of the middle and upper classes, I would go further and say that solace has also been sought in urban wildernesses, creativity has blossomed, identities have been formed by children who have found wilderness in the concrete jungles they found themselves in.

While experiencing nature and deepening our relationship with it can hugely benefit our physical and psychological well-being, it is fair to suggest that it is not the only way to develop a stable identity and sense of place. I would argue however, that deepening our relationship with nature offers one of the most holistic ways to live –not only improving our health and well-being, developing our identity and giving us a sense of place, but also giving us a heart for future generations and the sustainability of our planet.

What Louv does successfully is leaving the reader with an optimistic view of the opportunities for change. ‘We must hold the conviction that the direction of this trend can be changed’ (Louv, 2005, p.309). Highlighting the success of recycling and anti-smoking campaigns in the last generation, he argues that a movement towards a child-nature reunion is starting to take root and will rise from the determination and awareness of individuals as well as organisations and national networks.

Within the UK, we can see the awareness and recognition of the importance of this issue in reports such as the Government’s ‘Every Child Matters’ agenda (DfE, 2003) and ‘The Natural Choice: securing the value of nature’ paper (DEFRA, 2011) which proposes “action to get more children learning outdoors, removing barriers and increasing schools’ abilities to teach outdoors”. These, along with the RSPB’s (2010) ‘Every Child Outdoors’ report and The National Trust's ‘Natural Childhood’ report by Stephen Moss (2012) bring together evidence of the benefits to children of having contact with nature. They support Louv’s hope and vision for individuals, organisations and governments to start recognising the fierce urgency for natural play.

We all have a role to play in reversing the trend towards the extinction of experience amongst children if we are to begin to see a reversal in these worrying consequences (Moss, 2012). And we should remain motivated to do so, because nature presents the young with something so much greater; it offers an environment where they can easily contemplate infinity and eternity (Louv, 2005)...

Copyright © Menna Pritchard 2014

Monday, 6 January 2014

Re-wilding ourselves

The following is a excerpt from a paper I am currently writing titled: Into the Wild - the Fierce Urgency for Natural Play, which looks into the causes of our disconnection from nature and explores the consequences of a lack of natural playtime. Drawing upon personal experiences and supporting literature, it examines the value and benefits of outdoor play and natural childhood, whilst being sympathetic to the barriers that individuals and professionals face in implementing this. Finally, it explores solutions to this fierce urgency for natural play, examining a new way of living in an effort to restore and ‘rewild’ ourselves and our ecosystems.

In reading for the paper, I have found the ideas in George Monbiot's most recent book particularly pertinent. It has influenced and challenged my thinking regarding conservation, and awakened many new thoughts and ideas. The below review, focuses primarilily on the ideas raised in Chapter 10.

“In wilderness is the preservation of the world”
Henry David Thoreau 

“I am glad I will not be young in a future without wilderness.”
Aldo Leopold

“Keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”
John Muir

Feral – searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding
George Monbiot (2013)

In ‘Feral’, George Monbiot tells the gripping story of his efforts to re-engage with nature, offering a compelling, perceptive and, at times, challenging vision for the future of the land, the sea and ourselves. Its central argument calls for less human intervention especially in the seas and uplands, where he explores how much nature we have lost and argues that we might be better off mentally, physically and even financially, if we brought back more wilderness.

Feral also asks compelling questions of the conservation community – not only what is trying to be achieved, but why and who for? We have to understand how nature supports our day to day lives - the natural world is inextricably linked to a wide range of our needs and wants. And while the majority of conservation efforts are to see an increasing abundance, and protection from extinction, of native wildlife because nature is seen as having an intrinsic value, conservation is also ‘for people’. Nature is good for us; our health, our well-being, even our economy. Monboit highlights that more people need to appreciate this value and suggests that restoring natural processes, letting wildlife species reclaim and ‘rewild’ the land and seas would not only invigorate our landscapes but would go a long way in inspiring people to reconnect with nature.

Drawing on the work of Stephen Moss in his ‘Natural Childhood’ report (2012), Monboit presents us with the worrying fact that in the last 40 years the areas in which many children may roam without supervision in the UK has decreased by almost 90 percent, and the number of children regularly playing in wild places has fallen to 1 in 10 from over half (p.167).

Perhaps even more worryingly, he suggests that the impacts of our disconnection from nature are so familiar that we scarcely see them anymore, an idea supported by Barton (2007) who states that “the waste of young lives through lack of purpose and lack of self-esteem barely registers on the scale of public concern”.

“Of all the world’s creatures, perhaps those in greatest need of rewilding are our children. The collapse of children’s engagement with nature has been even faster that the collapse of the natural world” (p.167)

Building on the ideas presented by Louv (2005), Palmer (2007), Gill (2007) and others, Monboit argues that the indoor world is far more dangerous than the outdoor world which parents seem so frightened of. He suggests that when confined to their homes, children become estranged from each other and from nature, and further highlights the consequences of a sedentary indoor lifestyle – obesity, rickets, asthma, myopia and decreased heart and lung function.

Regarding education, he presents research from several papers, alongside personal experience, suggesting that children would do far better in school if they spent less time in the classroom (p. 169). Natural play, he argues, improves children’s reasoning and observation, and enhances their reading, writing, science and maths. These ideas are supported by Ofsted (2008) who report that direct experiences of learning outside the classroom can ‘help to make subjects more vivid and interesting for pupils and enhance their understanding’. Research carried out by King’s College London (2011) found that children who spend time learning and exploring in natural environments perform better in ‘reading, mathematics, science and social studies’ and that it ‘makes other school subjects rich and relevant and gets apathetic students excited about learning’ (Kings College, 2011).

Following this, he presents us with the major hindrance we face in giving our children the opportunities to learn and explore in nature – what if there are no wild spaces for them to ‘rewild’? ... Why are there no wild spaces?

“The commons were home for boy or bird, but the Enclosures stole the nests of both, reaved children from the site of their childhood, robbed them of animal-tutors and river-mentors and stole their dream shelters… over the generations, as the outdoors shrank, the indoor world enlarged in importance” (Griffiths in Monbiot, 2013, p.168)

Monbiot draws our attention to Enclosure, the worldwide process of privitising or nationalizing common land, in turn, excluding the people and the uses to which it had formerly been put. In the UK this was accelerated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by parliamentary Acts of Enclosure. And with it ‘childhood was to be enclosed as surely as the land’ (Griffiths in Monbiot, 2013, p. 169). He argues that much of what made the land captivating and inviting for children was either destroyed or they were banned from, and that ever since then ‘so many fences are raised to shut us out that eventually they shut us in’ (p.168). Beyond the cities, even in rural areas, there is little ‘wild’ space left presenting a very real barrier, perhaps the biggest that we face in helping our children (and ourselves) reconnect with the natural environment.

If children deserve wild spaces to play, explore and learn in, if we believe that they so urgently need natural play to protect them from the dangerous consequences of a sedentary indoor lifestyle, then we must ensure they have access to these spaces and places. Monbiot asks: ‘could every new housing development include some self-willed land in which children can freely play?’ (p. 170). He also presents the idea of farming becoming unviable in certain areas, perhaps creating a chance for the wildlife (and people) to return to the land. We must also seek answers for immediate opportunities for children to have the chance to experience and play in natural spaces.

Authors of The Death of Environmentalism, Shellenberger & Nordhaus (2005), suggest that a collective step back is needed to “rethink everything”. Rethinking ‘everything’ requires creative, radical thinking. Monbiot dreams big dreams, ‘Feral’ is very much a work of hope. Perhaps those most likely to read it are those already well informed and fully converted to the idea of rewilding - both ourselves and the environment. Our very real challenge is how do we make this a ‘new common sense’ for the masses? How do we present this in a way that is inspiring and, importantly, realistic?

To begin, I would suggest that areas such as the school environment in which children spend so much of their time, as well as local parks and green spaces, need to be radically rethought, re-imagined, redesigned. Indeed this has already begun to take place but needs to become more wide spread. We also need to look at re-educating ourselves and ‘unstructuring’ our play time, as ‘unstructured time in nature can unlock paths to new learning, intuition, and knowledge’ (Hough, 2009, p.4).

‘The outdoors has an endless capacity to surprise. Its joys are unscripted, its discoveries your own’ (Monbiot, 2013, p.169).

We must strive for a future where we realise the fierce urgency for natural play, embrace the possibilities of our landscape and see a real change in the lives of our children, ourselves and the environment.

References and Further Reading:

Barton, B. (2007) Safety, risk & adventure in outdoor activities. London: Paul Chapman.

Barnes, P and Sharp, B (eds) (2004) The RHP Companion to Outdoor Education. Lyme Regis: Russell House Publishing.

Bird, W. (2004) Natural fit: can green space and biodiversity increase levels of physical activity? Sandy, Bedfordshire: RSPB [available online at:]

Bird, W. (2007) Natural thinking: investigating the links between the natural environment, biodiversity and mental health. Sandy, Bedfordshire: RSPB [available online at:]

Bond, D. (2013) Project Wild Thing, Available at: [viewed: 1/12/13]

DEFRA (2011) The Natural Choice: securing the value of nature, Available at: [viewed: 16/10/13]

DEFRA (2013) Landscape and Outdoor recreation evidence plan, DEFRA: London

Department for Education (2003) Every Child Matters, Available at: [viewed: 16/10/13]

Department for Education (2006) Learning outside the classroom, Available at: [viewed: 16/10/13]

Designed to Move (2012) Designed to move: A Physical Activity Action Agenda, American College of Sports: USA

Gill, T. (2007) No Fear - Growing up in a risk averse society, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation: London

Gill, T. (2010) Nothing Ventured - balancing risks and benefits in the outdoors, English Outdoor Council

Hough, F. (2009) Getting Lost in the Woods: And Other Gateways to Creativity, University of British Columbia, Faculty of Education, Vancouver, B.C. Canada

Institute for Public Policy Research (2008) A Generation of Youth are being Raised Online, Available at: [viewed: 17/10/13]

Kings College (2011) Understanding the diverse benefits of learning in natural environments. Commissioned by Natural England. Retrieved from: (Accessed: 10/11/13)

Louv, R. (2005) Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Algonquin Books: Chapel Hill

Louv, R. (2012) The Nature Principal - Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual World, Algonquin Books: Chapel Hill

Monbiot, G. (2013) Feral – searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding. Allen Lane: London
Mortlock, C. (1984) The Adventure Alternative. Cicerone Press: Cumbria, UK.

Moss, S. (2012) Natural Childhood Report, The National Trust

Natural England (2009) No Charge? Valuing the Natural Environment, Natural England: Sheffield

Orr, D. (2002) The Nature of Design: Ecology, Culture, and Human Intention: Ecology, Culture and the Human Intention, Oxford University Press: New York

Palmer, S. (2007) Toxic Childhood - how the modern world is damaging our children and what we can do about it, Orion Books: London

Pyle, (2008). No child left inside: Nature study as a radical act. In Gruenewald, D.A. & Smith, G.A., (Eds.). Place-based education in the global age. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum. 155-172.

RSPB (2012) Every Child Outdoors – Wales, Available at: [viewed: 16/10/13]

Shellenberger, M. & Nordhaus, P. (2005). The death of environmentalism: Global warming politics in a post-environmental world. Available at: [accessed: 24/12/13]

© 2014 Menna Pritchard All Rights Reserved