Thursday, 10 May 2012

Hard sell?

It's 7C outside. The rain is blurring the view through our kitchen window, but I can still make out the newly-greened branches of the cherry trees beyond, bucking and twitching in the brisk north-easterly wind. The wood burner's lit, and the cats are curled up next to me on the sofa. It would make quite a cosy winter scene, if it weren't for the fact that it's 10 May.

And there's no sign of a change in the weather any time soon, according to the forecasters. Which is especially frustrating now, as I'm due to venture out tomorrow to help support a two-day expedition with a group of new Duke of Edinburgh's Award kids. For many it will be their first experience of walking any distance in relatively wild country, let alone with a heavy pack, and making an overnight camp. If the weather's foul on their first sortie it could give them a less than ideal introduction to the joys of the great outdoors.

And I think it's important that they do have a good experience. More than just important - I think it's vital, in the most literal sense of the word. If they, and the thousands of other teenagers that will be making similar trips all over the country,  learn to love the natural world it will have a huge impact on not only their lives but on the well-being of society and the future of the environment. And if you think I'm being a little melodramatic, this is what a Natural England commissioned report, published today, had to say about learning in a natural environment:

'Hands-on contact with nature is not only essential for protecting the environment but appears to be a means of cultivating community and enhancing the mental health and wellbeing of children and adults alike.'
Natural England Commissioned Report NECR092 Learning in the Natural Environment: Review of social and economic benefits and barriers

The publication is the latest in a string of  reports highlighting the importance of getting children and young people outside in natural environments, including the National Trust's recent offering, Natural Childhood, and Richard Louv's seminal work on the subject, Last Child in the Woods.

It seems pretty obvious to me that if we want our children (and adults for that matter) to value the natural world and the environment, they've got to have contact with it. I think the advertising media call it 'brand recognition' don't they?

Of course it's fair to say that part of the 'Natural World brand' - at least in the UK - is the vagaries of the weather, and in order to develop that brand loyalty we need to encourage our 'consumers' to enjoy it come rain or shine, heatwave or blizzard. But lots of kids nowadays are never even exposed to the natural weather, let alone the natural world.

Perhaps we could learn from the gardening world, where plants raised in greenhouses are 'hardened off' by being put out in the cold for short periods each day before being planted out in the open permanently. Perhaps we need to harden off our children by letting them go out in the rain at lunchtimes, or play in the snow after school. Then we wouldn't risk them drooping at their first, hours-long encounter with a Scottish spring day in the hills.

In the meantime I'm praying for some sun.

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