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]

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