He's not the Lorax, but he does speak for the trees.
Meet David Bond: father, entrepreneur, and self-appointed Marketing Director for Nature.
In his documentary film Project Wild Thing, Bond takes on our addiction to screens (TVs, laptops, phones, iPads, etc), restrictive healthy and safety laws, and parental concerns about crime that are preventing British children from playing outside. His mission - to 'brand' nature so that it can compete on a level field with the many popular labels that are branded into our children; to get kids climbing trees again; and to get them access to trees in the first place.
Bond's energy is admirable. We laugh as we watch him sneak footballs with 'NO BALL' printed on them around shared urban courtyards that have 'no ball' signs. We smile as he asks children why they don't lick frogs, and cringe when he enlists someone to do a 'dad rap' about the great outdoors. But at the heart of this humour is an important point:
We all need more wild time.
The figures are staggering. Children today spend an average of 8 to 12 hours looking at screens, despite the fact that pediatricians recommend avoiding TV altogether for under 2s, and imposing a limit of less than two hours of screen time per day for older children. A new three-year research project undertaken by the RSPB revealed that 'only 21 per cent of children in the UK have a level of connection to nature that can be considered "realistic and achievable"'.
The good news is that we know how to fix this. It's as simple as spending time in nature, which has been proven to be good for our physical and mental health. Nature is powerful: a study that appeared in the journal Environmental Science and Technology earlier this year found that people who moved to greener living areas had sustained improved mental health, unlike people who moved for work-purposes, where the increased levels of happiness only lasted for a short time. Meanwhile, the mental health charity Mind has released a report linking positive mental health to access to green outdoor spaces, and even recommends a prescription of 'ecotherapy' for mental health problems.
Bond argues that for nature to become appealing to our children, and in order for it to compete with consumer brands, it has to be sold to them. Nature can't compete with the billboards that are blocking the view. In Project Wild Thing he speaks to designer Michael Wolff (of Wolff & Olins), who says that we have mental 'filing cabinets' containing files that represent images and labels. The science behind this is sound: research undertaken in 2010 found that even 3 year olds are brand-conscious and can recognise logos and products that are targeted at their age range. Some children are more receptive to the marketing than others, which is related to enhanced cognitive ability to categorise information, a type of brain development that begins around age 2 and helps us to make sense of the world. Now this impressive brain power is used to remember brands, and nature has been ousted from the drawer.
Enter Project Wild Thing, which was launched last September. How successful is nature as a brand? 'Nobody really knows', David says. For someone who is taking on the immense task of marketing nature to children, he is a remarkably humble man. 'I'm not saying it's changing their lives,' he tells me, 'but it's making them question.' In the UK, branding reaches babies soon after they are born through newborn welcome packs that are distributed in hospitals, but there is no literature in the packs to remind parents of the importance of taking babies outdoors regularly, so Bond helped to put together 'Out and About' cards for that purpose. 10,000 of these cards have now been distributed to new parents. and more NHS trusts are looking to give them out.
Personally I call that success.
But we haven't made it easy for children to engage with nature. Ten-year-old Mason is a poignant example of a child who loves nature but whose access to it is limited, and in the film he tells us that he could get an ASBO for playing ball games in the 'no ball games' courtyard that is, essentially, his garden. He shows us the grass he walks his dogs on: a small strip of green that is covered in dog faeces. It makes me sad. It makes us all sad. But most importantly, it makes us want to do better for our children.
In fact, after the film was made, that small patch of grass was concreted over, but through Bond's project Mason has been shown a local farm and is now able to play there. It's the same for adults too - we need to be reminded to go out and play, and shown where to go, because it's far easier to turn on a screen indoors and be entertained for hours. Nature play takes courage, imagination, and a sense of adventure: things we all crave. Hence the popularity of the free Wild Time app, which suggests an outdoor activity to the user depending on the where s/he lives and the time slots s/he has free. It's a simple idea but one that fills a crucial need, which is perhaps why the app appeals to people of all ages, from 4 to 60. Some of the activities have been surprisingly popular, eg the 'Birdstep' activity that is shown in the film, where users try to get as close to wild birds as possible without being noticed.
Deep down we all know that being wild is cool. We like the daring and the spontaneity of initiatives like guerilla gardening and freerunning. Yet this fun, entertaining piece of media is gathering its own momentum. We laugh at the footage of Bond trying to market nature from a shed in his back garden, but what he talks about also resonates with us. Watching this film won't turn you into a twitcher overnight, but it might make you notice the birds and trees more, and it will remind you of something that's important in life, something our children need a lot more of. Wild time.
So buy the film. Watch it. Arrange a local screening, talk to people about it. Get the Wild Time app for yourself and your children, and go outside and do the Birdstep together. It's time we took back space for children to climb trees and play ball games. The time of 'No balls' is over. Project Wild has plenty enough for us all - and dad doesn't need to rap about that.