Monday, 10 September 2012

Kids in the country

Today’s story, for me, has evolved from indifference to fascination. ‘Children should be outdoors more’ sounds like a familiar homily usually delivered by a man with stout socks giving way to hairy calves and then ignored. But under investigation – and that’s what we do on Countryfile – a gripping tale emerges of aspirations shackled by fear.

The National Trust are launching their Natural Childhood initiative to encourage kids to get out more. As an organisation that thrives on visitors to outdoor properties, there is clearly some self-interest in encouraging the next generation of customers, but they insist they’re driven by what’s good for the youth: gaining confidence, tackling obesity, enjoying Britain’s natural assets and simply feeling happier and healthier.

We’ve been road testing this with a family from Plymouth – a lively clan of two parents and six offspring squeezed into a housing association semi. I’d been with them about one and a half minutes before the 8 year old was showing me trapped moths and offering me a magnifying glass to study what lurks in a spider’s web. A little later we were in the woods across the estate and the children fizzed with enthusiasm for dens and conkers while Mum and Dad looked on and spoke wistfully about playing out from dawn to dusk in fields and parks when they were young without parents standing guard.  But they felt unable to give their own brood such freedom and what’s keeping them inside is fear: danger from strangers. A widespread belief has evolved that public space is perilous for kids, despite most evidence to the contrary.

The next dose of natural medicine came as a liquid: the sea. Mum was never a natural swimmer and lacked the confidence to thrust her children into the waves. But we met up with the Blue Sound project, an outreach scheme run by the Marine Biological Society, which tries to get the locals acquainted with the wet stuff. The family arrived intrigued but uneasy. The young ones had hardly ever touched the sea. By the end of the afternoon, with guidance from the Blue Sound volunteers, they were like water babies. The two year old was splashing in the shallows while the teenage lad, who could barely swim at lunchtime, was snorkelling off the coast. As they packed and dried they made plans to return at the weekend.

Natural space is not without risk as its rules aren’t made entirely by us. It’s slightly beyond our control and that’s the buzz. But, with just a little guidance, this family’s pent-up passion for nature broke through the fear barrier. And that starts a journey with infinite destinations.

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