Learning with Nature and the nature of play

Making mud pies - no instruction manual needed. Photo: Jim Purbrick via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).
Making mud pies - no instruction manual needed. Photo: Jim Purbrick via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).
A new book aims to get children off their mobile phones and back where they belong: in the great outdoors. It's packed with well thought-out, purposeful activities to get children interacting with nature, but Martin Spray wonders: is it all trying too hard? Has the essential nature of 'play' somehow been forgotten?
Children play, and used to play 'in nature', outdoors. To some extent they still do, but probably not nearly enough. We inhibit their explorations, creativity, and self-testing. And the same goes for adults.

From my point of view", writes Chris Packham in his foreword, "that of a naturalist, I sincerely fear for the future of my kind."

And the Introduction begins with one indication of the changes that are associated with this. From 6 miles in the 1920s, down to 1 mile in the 1950s, then to 700 yards in 2007, a typical British primary-school-age child's 'roaming radius' has all but vanished.

Our children are close to being obligate domestics. In 2008, the National Trust reported that only a little over half our children could identify an oak, and but a third could name a red admiral butterfly.

We are a long way from the authors' belief that "for anyone to care for nature, they need to know it, to know it in their bodies." TV programmes and snippets on the web are not enough.

The three authors' first task is to show us how to entice youngsters outside - sans virtual reality. This is not easy, when many of the parents are also indoors people. I'm not sure that they make an argument for going outside, that will convince sceptical youngsters, and that will lead to their own enthusiasm for things 'natural'.

It looks rather as though there is an assumption that "it is good for you", and that for users of this book the authors' genuine and abundant enthusiasm will be sufficient fuel. I am doubtful, but let's hope so.

A cornucopia of ideas

Despite some of my comments so far, and comments to follow, Learning with nature is a cornucopia of ideas tested on children and adults, in families, schools, and social groups. And the activities are set in the Real World ...

The book's main sections are Games, Naturalist activities, Seasonal activities, and Survival skills. These aren't clear-edged categories, but serve both to order the contents of the book and to foster serendipity in it.

It is good to see such 'survival' skills as fire-lighting, the making of shelters, and finding sources of water, in a book concerned with young children.

However, some naturalists might point out that such things as making bird feeders from pine-cones and jewellery from discs of wood aren't activities usually associated with natural history. This, though, is a minor point: it is four or five other things that worry me.

First: on most pages, 'nature' consists of plants or trees, and birds or animals - essentially mammals, but, for instance, sometimes including 'bugs'. This is an old-fashioned classification, and does not seem a good foundation for natural history, or indeed any other understanding of life.

Second: the non-living things and processes of nature are sparsely scattered through the book, but mostly on later pages, where we find fire, shelter and water. Their importance and interest come over as very much secondary.

In truth, we need nature far more than nature needs us

The third is more complex. The underlying principle of the authors' attitude to nature is, it seems, that we are its caretakers; that is, we have responsibility to see that it is cared for. The 'Looking after nature' page that follows the introduction, I found difficult.

Children play, and used to play 'in nature', outdoors. To some extent they still do, but probably not nearly enough. We inhibit their explorations, creativity, and self-testing. And the same goes for adults.

Certainly, "human interaction with natural resources often involves manipulation of nature for our benefit". And in that we are no different from pigeons, mice, and the Ebola virus. Certainly, many of our contemporaries "exploit natural resources in unsustainable ways", but can you think of many major cultures that didn't?

We seem close to the idea of the Golden Age. Modern humanity's "hunter-gatherer ancestors", it is stated, "understood the interplay between nature and people". As a statement of fact, this is not very convincing - and anyway, this sort of language is a little askew if one believes that humankind is indivisibly part of nature: not apart from it, and certainly not aloof from it as a special creation.

In the words of environmental psychologist Roger Hart, an influential writer in the 80s and 90s, "paramount among the conceptual issues" is the implied assumption, so often made, that children are "closer to nature" - more natural - than adults. Maybe, yet there appears to be little objective evidence of this. Moreover, we tend to assume that mutual benefit flows from the contact of nature with child.

I remember my own children with a neighbour's daughter making a sign for their play shed: it read "Be kind to wildlife and wildlife will be kind to you." Nature, surely, isn't 'bad'. But nor is it 'good': it's neutral. 'Looking after nature' in practice isn't. For example, Learning with nature invites us to leave parts of our gardens untouched, for the wild; it also asks us to feed animals in cold periods, and to provide "water that is not frozen".

Nature spirits? Or sentimental tosh?

Messages of the indivisibility of humankind and the rest of nature do come over clearly in the book, but are sometimes lost in the authors' enthusiasm, and several times are thrust behind something else; and this is the fourth irritation.

Now, I know the book is focussed on the encouragement of young children to go out and have 'contact with nature', to appreciate nature and begin to (objectively) understand it, and want to share its amazingness with others.

And I know that a strongly 'scientific' view of the world is inappropriate, indeed counterproductive, for youngsters - and many adults (and indeed science is only one way - and an imperfect one - of understanding).

But a repeated invocation of the supernatural, as something existing alongside the natural, and alongside scientific understanding, needs very careful handling.

Have fun with Flower Fairies, and Gnomes, and (of course) Tree Spirits, by all means. However, I'm with Gary Snyder, thinking that people with myths of the super-natural "do not take them literally, [though] they hold the stories very dear". There is more sentimentality than cultural myth about Flower Fairies.

Fun activities - the foundations of enthusiasm for nature

The layout of the book reflects modern preference for photos, short, discrete pieces of text, and lists, and a keeping of what I call argument to a minimum. This is fine if you don't need to see the argument for a particular point of view because you have already thought it through, but dubious otherwise.

The pattern for each activity over one or two pages is a 'how-to' section, a note on resources used, a list of variations, a box of 'invisible learning' that results from doing the activity, 'top tips' (e.g. for tracking, clay and sand are good; if the ground is hard, spread some sand on it), and related activities, plus photos.

The scheme is reminiscent of, but much more inviting than, an influential book of the 1980s, Joseph Bharat Cornell's Sharing nature with children (California, Exley Pubs. 1979).

Both these books are broader in remit than one closer to the natural history tradition, such as Michael Chinery's The family naturalist (London, Macdonald & Jane, 1977), although this includes such things as looking at breeds of sheep or making a garden pond, as well as using a hand lens and cleaning a skull. (Today, Health & Safety probably vetoes that last one!)

Chinery's book is a good example of a focus on topics and material likely to lead (in some cases) to an enthusiasm for natural history, although I suspect that for most younger children a first step or two on the way to Chris Packham's point-of-view will involve activities such as Learning with nature's or Cornell's.

Learning with nature's activities generally look worthwhile, and are not simply ends in themselves. For example, 'Elder pencils' leads to invisible learning about a fire's need for oxygen, charcoal making, and the uses of different trees. Let's look at a couple of examples.

A game to "create a connection to a specific species in seconds" is 'Nature names'. Animals' and or plants' names are put in a bowl, and the children take one each. Each child finds out "something about that name", such as where and how long it lives, and if it is edible, to share with the group.

Each is asked to draw their species. For variety, animals' movements and sounds can be explored. And the children can make their own lists. Besides providing a direct way to engage with and remember aspects of the environment, "before you know it you know a lot more about your surroundings and [its] species".

A seasonal activity (some years!) is making 'Snow shelters'. With a spade and e.g. ice-cream tubs for forming snow bricks, following a detailed 'how to' should result in a sort of igloo. Alternatively, hollow out a large pile of snow. This introduces the idea of shelters and something of their structure, and is a good example of collaborative working.

Roger Hart, I suspect, would have looked for more opportunities for a child to show initiative, to experiment (and often fail), and to follow unanticipated lines of investigation. And to have more say in what happened ...

Is it all too purposeful to be 'play'?

In Children's participation. The theory and practice of involving young citizens in community development and environmental care (London, Earthscan for UNICEF , 1997), for a readership different from Learning with nature's, he examines worldwide cases of action where young children are (relatively) freer to initiate, run, conclude, and perhaps evaluate, projects.

These, of course, are by no means all pro-conservation or concerned with 'nature', but often they are. "Regrettably", he notes, " ... children will either carry out [their] projects secretly or will be intimidated from even beginning them because they fear that adults will not understand their desire or capacity to carry them out."

He notes the instance of a secret vegetable garden made by an eight-year-old boy in Vermont. Although less than four square metres, it enabled him to add a clandestine contribution to the family's veg basket.

This is deliberate, purposeful, action. The activities in Learning with nature are also purposeful - the purpose being an adult's. A different sort of activity, thought to be a necessary component for a fully developed person, is play: activity with no obvious fixed aim except absorption and pleasure.

Little is said about play in the introductory pages, or indeed in the examples. Perhaps it is taken for granted, however, as it features quite strongly in the list of references. Certainly, many of the activities in the book could be adapted, but I think that, as it stands, neither of these types - play, and child-initiated activity - is deliberately identified.

It is important to remember that children play, and used to play 'in nature', outdoors. To some extent they still do, but probably not nearly enough. We inhibit their explorations, creativity, and self-testing. Real play needs no instruction manual.

And the same goes for adults. If Schiller (he of 'Ode to joy') was right, "man [he meant people] is only completely a man when he plays". A book with the subtitle 'A how-to guide to inspiring grown-ups through outdoor games and activities' is urgently needed ...

A few steps have been taken towards this. My Wildlife Trust magazine has just arrived. It has an article, 'Nature Tots', on what the Derbyshire trust offers preschool children, and 'I wasn't sure about joining in - but this is brilliant!', on the Sheffield Trust's offering for people in their second - or third - half-century: Wild at Heart.



The book: 'Learning with nature - A how-to guide to inspiring children through outdoor games and activities' by Marina Robb, Victoria Mew & Anna Richardson is published tomorrow (29th January 2015) by Green Books.

Martin Spray is an editor and writer for Ecos - A review of conservation. He retired early from the University of Gloucestershire, England, because of Parkinson's disease. He taught aspects of ecology, landscape architecture, environmental philosophy, and professional ethics, and has contributed to a wide variety of conservation, landscape, gardening and education magazines and journals.

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