The National Trust's heart is in the right place with its list of "50 Things to Do Before You're 11¾". Who could argue that planting a seed, cooking over a campfire and eating wild blackberries aren't worthwhile childhood experiences. Being connected to nature is a profound and important thing, and I'd like to do all of these with my eight and 13-year-olds.
But a to-do list? Don't we get enough of these with our children's educations, their diets, even their gestation in the womb. This list of "shoulds" goes against the very freeform discovery it's meant to inspire.
Negotiating your own relationship with nature is by necessity a self-guided pursuit, spurred by personal passions, questions and - if you're doing it right - hair-raising mistakes. (On an Easter camping trip, my husband and I recounted childhood stories to our rapt kids, including his close call with a four-inch scorpion and my painful fall into a cactus. I wonder if those are list-sanctioned.)
Dame Fiona Reynolds, the National Trust's director general, lays the responsibility for the gulf between child and the great outdoors at the foot of technology, obsessive parenting and health and safety. Of course, many people point to the video game and the helicopter parent as impediments to 'natural' childhood. But that impulse ignores a dramatic shift in our entire society - fewer green spaces, more traffic, longer working hours, less appetite for risk from all quarters, a complex web of demands on the time of children and parents, not to mention the dwindling resources for programmes like Scouts and Guides that focus on these very activities.
The Trust's response, perhaps inadvertently, has been to focus the conversation back on parents and produce their marching orders: Here's what you need to do to make sure your children are well-rounded. "They [children] need to be given the confidence and skills to go into the wood and build a den or climb a tree," Reynolds said. Now we're in the world of skills and teaching and it's all starting to sound a little bit like coursework. The trust will be offering a class in stone skipping. That sounds like fun. Will it be on the final exam?
I hope the list does spur families to visit National Trust properties as well as get outside, go rock pooling or fly a kite. But kids don't need a checklist in mind when they play in a wood or a stream. As for parents, this reads like just another litany of to-dos for them, alongside flashcards and literacy drills, menus of brain-building foods, and the optimal amount of expert-defined quality time for raising well-adjusted overachievers.
Here's my to-do for well-meaning but misguided list-makers: Take a flying leap.
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