Children – and now parents – are afraid of the unsanitised outdoors
Young parents, disconnected from nature, are just as timid as their offspring
Andrew ‘Mouse’ Fleming with Children enjoying ‘Wild Kids’ Day’ organised by the children’s nature charity Owls at Turvey Nature Reserve, Donabate, Co Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson
We’ve all seen them. The families who rock up to some fabulous forest, coastal stretch or national park and don’t venture beyond the car-park – or the coffee shop, if there is one.
We might say they are lazy and don’t want to walk 50 yards, says the chief executive of the Heritage Council of Ireland, Michael Starrett, but he believes it is often fear that holds them back. They are just not comfortable in the unsanitised outdoors.
Instead, their adult eyes see risk in everything and none of the joy
Some of the first generation of children in Ireland to start becoming disconnected from the natural world are now young parents. Those unfamiliar with tramping a virgin path through long grass, or losing themselves in a maze of trees or wading into rock pools to find sea-life left stranded by the retreating tide, are in no position to introduce their offspring to these delights.
Instead, their adult eyes see risk in everything and none of the joy. Lurking dangers rather than the sweet scent of crushed grass; the height of trees rather than the beauty of their bark and branches; the sharpness of rocks rather than the wildlife they harbour.
Starrett also believes that some of Ireland’s access legislation “and the lack of clarity about where you can or can’t go in the countryside” plays on those fears.
Changing attitudes and making families feel more at ease in the countryside was an aim of the Heritage Council long before it commissioned the 2015 study Children Outdoors that starkly confirmed the need for such measures. Depriving children of the opportunity to play outdoors may result in them not realising their potential “and potentially leaving them with poorer physical and mental health in the future”, it warned.
There’s plenty of research to support the argument that . . . we’re raising a generation of weaklings – in body, mind and soul
Obesity and rickets, increased anxiety and depression, asthma and short-sightedness have all been linked to reduced access to outdoor natural environments. There’s plenty of research to support the argument that, in the words of Stephen Moss, author of Natural Childhood for the UK’s National Trust, we’re raising a “generation of weaklings” – in body, mind and soul.
Under the slogan “It’s in Your Nature”, the upcoming National Heritage Week (August 19th to 27th) is putting particular focus on our natural heritage, aiming to entice families with free events all over the country. And its dedicated Wild Child Day on Wednesday, August 23rd, celebrates the importance for children of freedom in the open air.
The council is co-ordinating nearly 2,000 events across the country, which are organised primarily by voluntary groups. The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, for instance, holds its annual whale watch as part of it on Saturday, August 26th, 2-5pm, at 20 locations around the coast. The whole thing grew out of the annual European Open Heritage Day in September to become, on this island, a nine-day festival that was moved to August so as to catch families during the summer holidays before schools reopen.
“The parents who are having the children that we are trying to target are the ones most caught up in the economic commitments and are bogged down,” says Starrett. The Heritage Week programme offers them ways to do something really enjoyable and worthwhile with their children – and for the most part free too – while relieving their own stresses and tensions, he points out.
Even allowing for our busy lives, there is no excuse for not enjoying the countryside and green spaces, considering how mountains, forest and sea are within such easy reach on this small island. But sometimes we need a reason to drag our children and ourselves away from the convenience of screen-based entertainment.
“Our natural heritage is just there for us and we want to make that connection,” says Starrett. The council can show that our natural and cultural heritage can play a big part in better well-being for children, he continues, “given the means to allow people to access it”.
However, while he’s all in favour of visitor centres being constructed at natural amenities to help people understand their surroundings, “if they become the reason to go, then I think we’ve lost a battle – I really do”.
A lost generation
Andrew “Mouse” Fleming, who set up the children’s nature charity Owls (Outdoor, Wildlife, Learning and Survival) in 2010, is passionate about bringing children and families to public open spaces and opening their eyes to what is around them.
“For the first two years it was all done voluntarily,” he says. But gradually word spread and he has gone from knocking on doors, to schools, local authorities and private interests knocking on his.
He sees the generation of young parents who have missed out on outdoor freedom, over-scheduling their children and anxious about their safety.
“What has gone away is that natural play. Nowadays you speak to a young family and they don’t want to let the child out of their sight. They have swimming class, and then they have football and then they have horseriding, instead of ‘go to the park and just play’. Everything is focused and organised, no just natural ‘go out there’.”
He recalls how, a couple of years ago, in the weeks leading up one of his summer camps, the ultra-cautious mother of one of the girls who was signed up kept ringing him up with questions about the minutiae of the arrangements.
The incident seemed to enliven the timid girl, who loved the camp
“It started to make me panic,” he admits. “Then on the first day, we were around a lake, and there is so much green it can be hard to see the water, and next thing I heard a big shout and somebody had gone into it” – and of course it was that mother’s daughter. He was just imagining what the reaction would be.
But, instead, the incident seemed to enliven the timid girl, who loved the camp and the mother was delighted at how much she had enjoyed herself.
Families can discover the joys of going “off grid” at an overnight camp that Owls is organising in Co Dublin on the first weekend of Heritage Week. There’s a chance to pitch your tent or, more daringly, build and sleep in your own shelter in Turvey Nature Reserve, near Newbridge Demesne, from 6.30pm on Saturday, August 19th to 10am the following morning (adult €10, child €5).
“During the night we are going to look for animals and set up moth traps and things like that,” says Fleming. There will also be singing and toasting of marshmallows around a camp fire.
There is so much time pressure on parents, it’s easier to hand children a screen and say go play on that, says Fleming. Equally, increased paperwork and demands of the curriculum leave primary-school teachers with little time to operate a nature table in the classroom and bring children outdoors.
When you do get children outdoors – after an hour, you will think they have always been there
“Nobody knows what’s out there to collect, or if you go into the woodland, what plant you can touch, what you can’t.”
But when you do get children outdoors – after an hour, you will think they have always been there, he says. Initially some can baulk at the cold or rain, but get them out on a sunny day or wrap them in appropriate clothing “and natural instinct will come into play”.
Although steeped in knowledge of the natural environment, Fleming insists what he does “is not rocket science, I am just facilitating something we should be doing”.
On a recent weekend he led a walk along the riverbank in River Valley, Swords, Co Dublin, skimming stones and pointing things out. Some 52 people turned up for it and the feedback was predominantly along the lines of “this is amazing”, as he engaged with the children in that setting.
Meanwhile, Fleming was thinking to himself, “this isn’t brain surgery”. But without him, those 50-plus people wouldn’t have been out the riverbank that day.
“I just walked along and saw a kid doing something and said ‘let’s all do it’. . . I just went with it.” He doesn’t bother with Latin names of plants and trees either – “they don’t need that”. His philosophy is to stimulate interest and learning in the wildlife of public spaces in the locality.
He always ends events by reminding participants that the park they are in is open to them at any time.
The good news is that, having noticed an increase in wildlife knowledge among children since setting up Owls seven years ago, Fleming believes the trend towards “nature deficit” is beginning to turn. As he points out, preschools are recognising the importance of the outdoors for play, and research on the benefits for children’s well-being is being widely reported in the media.
The forest school movement is also steadily growing, with the Irish Forest School Association holding its inaugural conference in Co Wexford last May. The idea is to reach children through schools, many of whom would not benefit from meaningful time spent outdoors, learning through child-led play, explains Ciara Hinksman of Earth Force Education, a pioneer in this field in Ireland.
“Forest school is typically held for two to three hours, once per week over one to two seasons, so that the children can really learn to become fully alive in their natural environment.”
We use connection modelling, practical skills . . . to connect children fully to themselves, to each other and to nature
Outdoor education “feels safe because we aim to meet kids where they are at, and bring them to new places of learning through their experiences in the woods”, she explains. “We use connection modelling, practical skills, outdoor cooking, storytelling, knots, games, tracking and plants to connect children fully to themselves, to each other and to nature.”
Earth Force Education is running a Primitive Skills Family Weekend at the Irish National Heritage Park in Co Wexford on August 19th and 20th, as part of Heritage Week (adult €150, child €75). Families are invited to come together to learn thatch building, spoon burning, provide food bring-a-dish style and learn skills together like a mini-village, says Hinksman, and sleep in the park’s Viking settlement. Children will have their own programme, as well as helping the adults to build shelters.
There are other sleep-out opportunities too, such as a nightly adventure camp and island hopping with Lough Gill Bushcraft and Adventure in Sligo, 6pm-11am, August 19th-25th (adult €30, child €10).
So why not unleash your children – and your own inner child – into the wild this Heritage Week? At the very least, get out of the car park.
National Heritage Week in numbers:
9: number of days in the the festival, running August 19th-27th
2,000: events around the country
500,000: number of people involved
30: counties participating – Fermanagh and Tyrone what’s your problem?
€300,000: estimated cost of venture
Wild Child Day: 10 of the best events
Here’s our pick of the events – all free – celebrating Wild Child Day on Wednesday, August 23rd:
Wild Kids: Who Dares Wins: The children’s nature charity Owls leads an exploration of St Catherine’s Park in Lucan, Co Dublin, during which participants have to try to avoid stepping on any man-made paths, 10am-11.30am. See owls.ie
Nature Explorers: Birds: Children aged five to 11 (with an accompanying adult) are invited to Wicklow Mountains National Park in Glendalough, to open their eyes to feathered friends in the locality. Booking, which is essential, opens at 9am on August 16th: tel 0404-45656.
Seashore Walk: The Wexford Wildfowl Reserve is organising a guided walk on Ardcavan beach to see coastal animals and plants at low tide, 2-4pm.
Children’s Wildlife Workshops: A chance to learn about the wildlife living in and around the striking, star-shaped Charles Fort, in Kinsale, Co Cork, 11am-1pm and 3pm-5pm. Booking is essential, tel 021-4772263.
Bone Investigators: There’s a chance to become a forensic archaeologist for the day and dig up a (replica) skeleton and other grave artefacts at the Kerry County Museum in Tralee, 11am to 4pm.
Burren Wild Child Rockyshore: Exploration of the rock pools of the Flaggy Shore, near Newquay, Co Clare, organised by the Burrenbeo Trust, noon to 2pm.
Is it Jack, Jenny or Jacko?: A chance to meet donkeys and watch live demonstrations at the National Museum of Ireland of Country Life in Turlough, Co Mayo, noon to 4pm.
Mini-Beast Expedition: Nature specialist Martina Butler leads bug hunts at the Fairy Village in The Demesne, Castlerea, Co Roscommon, starting every hour from 12.30-3.30pm.
Forge Wild Child Day: Outdoor activities for children aged five and up are being hosted at The Forge in Kilbride Cross, Co Carlow, 11.30am to 2.30pm. Booking essential, at Siopa Glas, Main Street, Ballon.
Go Wild: Monaghan County Council is hosting nature walks and workshops, pond-dipping and electro fishing – no fish are harmed in the process – in Rossmore Park, Monaghan, 10am-4pm.