Why We Need to Encourage Children To Look Up

25/04/2017 16:25

As the summer term starts and the weather (hopefully) improves, we start thinking about the outdoors, a life hidden from us when the rain and cold prevented us from enjoying gardens and parks and playgrounds. We turn our faces to the sun and enjoy the feeling of freedom that comes with it, a freedom we take for granted, but what about our children? Are they limited in their time outdoors because of our fears: stranger danger, traffic, the unknown or even their homework? Worse still, are they indoors all the time, enjoying virtual worlds at the expense of the real one?

We know most young people do get the chance to enjoy the outdoors, but according to a Natural England report, 12% of children (about 1.3 million) had not visited the natural environment in the 12-month period previous to the study. The statistics are even more stark for London and the Midlands where 38% and 35% of children respectively visit their natural environment less than once a week or never. It's unsurprising then that a National Trust survey found a third of children couldn't identify a magpie and half couldn't tell the difference between a bee and a wasp, a fact less startling given children between the ages of five and fifteen spend around fifteen hours each week online.

It's easy to look back through rose-tinted glasses; remembering little homework and long summer holidays. But it's not nostalgia to claim that in the past, young people had more opportunity to play, often without parents intervening so readily in problems. Add to this the constant pressure of social media and it's what Germans call the 'Generation Kopf unten' (head down generation). If children aren't encouraged to look up, they miss out on so much which can spark their interest.

A desire to explore and engage with the outdoors is something we should encourage, both in terms of formal and informal learning. From early childhood, we seek to understand: testing limits, learning about our own. We may understand the word 'impossible', but we continue to experiment and explore until we are satisfied, with our success or simply our own efforts. Our childhoods may look different to the ones our children have, but this desire hasn't changed. We know young people want adventurous activities. Only this month, the Scout Association released the numbers of young people on waiting lists to join; not lacking in enthusiasm, but thwarted by too few volunteers.

The world seems scary, for us as adults, often more so than for our children. We want to keep them safe, but at the same time, want them to develop confidence so they can deal with risk successfully. Such ambiguity makes things difficult for us and limits them, arguably preventing them from developing resilience and coping skills they otherwise might. And it's not just parents. Teachers, childcare professionals and volunteers working with young people can be nervous too. Beyond the primary fear to ensure everyone's safety is the responsibility and 'fear of litigation'. As with so many other areas of education, it's also a question of money. Outdoors education can be seen to have little demonstrable effect on results.

But there are numerous benefits both in terms of health and development. A third of children in year 6 are overweight or obese. Spending more time outside can't solve the problem alone, but it can promote a healthier lifestyle. 'Spending time in nature' promotes 'children's healthy development, well-being and positive environmental attitudes and values'. Being outside, connecting with nature offers children 'a stronger sense of place'. At school, young people who take part in gardening projects 'improve in scientific learning more than those who do not, and have healthier eating habits'. At forest schools, engagement 'leads to improved self-control'. And, as a House of Commons' report states: 'learning outside the classroom supports pupils' learning and development'.

Thankfully, most children do consider themselves happy, but one in ten report 'low levels of happiness'. 'Over the past half century or more we have seen a continuous erosion of children's freedom to play and, corresponding with that, a continuous decline in young people's mental and physical health'. When young people have 'the freedom and means to pursue their own interests, in safe settings [...] they acquire the skills and confidence required to meet life's challenges'. Mutz and Müller's research reveals that after completing outdoor adventures, young people 'report lower levels of stress, particularly with regard to troubles and demands', 'higher levels of self-efficacy [and] mindfulness' and 'higher levels of momentary happiness and life satisfaction'.

Exploration and adventure promote creativity in play, helping develop social, learning and thinking skills; how to compromise and assess potential dangers, as well as something of personal responsibility and respect. Classroom-based learning is, of course, essential; a foundation block upon which we build, but learning goes beyond the classroom, beyond that which is easy to assess. Young people learn in different ways at different times and adventurous experiences encourage reflection, a valuable skill for life.

Parks and playgrounds are there to be enjoyed. We can encourage children to look at the sky, notice changes to flora and fauna and appreciate the weather and seasons, learn how to use a map without relying on a phone, figure out how to fix a bike that needs repair or look up at the stars at night. Let them solve problems, think critically, feel challenge and simply enjoy the opportunity to be young and adventurous. There's so much to be said for the 'experience of trying'. No one appears to have told the universe that it should seem simple, or understandable to us, but it's that mystery and the chance of exploration that is so exciting, so next time you're outside with children, remind them to look up.

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