September 2011

Getting back to nature is child’s play

Inner city families are being encouraged to get out into the green space on their doorstep

Kim Yucksei, rosie, recipe tree

Kim Yucksei, with two-year old granddaughter Rosie and friend Ashton looking at the recipe tree on their estate in east London Photograph: Gareth Davies

Schemes are growing up around the UK that seek to reconnect inner citychildren with nature by encouraging them to appreciate the bugs and birds on their doorstep.

“We want to let people know that they can just go outside their front door to see wildlife,” says Isabel MacLennan, development officer of Nottinghamshire Wildlife trust.

Next month will see the official launch of Wildlife in the City, a collaboration between Nottingham city council and Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust, that will focus on 10 groups within the city failing to make use of their local green spaces and with a poor understanding of the benefits of doing so.

One of the key focuses of Wildlife in the City is the attitudes of children. In outreach work done by the trust earlier this year in preparation for the project, children were asked where they go to see nature. Many said they would have to go on jungle and safari trips; one answered that their family didn’t have a car.

“People aren’t accessing natural spaces, or if they are they’re not really understanding or appreciating what’s there,” says MacLennan.

A UK survey commissioned this summer by the Eden TV channel, looking at 2,000 eight- to 12-year-olds, found that a fifth had never climbed a tree or visited a farm, more than a quarter did not know what happens to a bee after it stings you, and a third play outside only once a week or less.

Nature-deficit disorder

US author Richard Louv coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” in his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, to describe the trend of children spending less time outdoors, resulting in a wide range of behavioural problems.

MacLennan agrees that it is particularly important for children to connect with nature. “There are health and social benefits associated with access to natural spaces. And if you work with people from a young age, they’ll hopefully carry that through to when they’re older,” she says.

Wildlife in the City will attempt to create interest by running hands-on activities such as bug hunting and bird-house building alongside walks and talks. But MacLennan admits that it probably won’t be easy. “It will be a huge challenge. We will be using arts and crafts – that sort of thing – to break down barriers.”

Tim Howell has been running a young people‘s nature and activity project, Change of Scene, in Northampton since the beginning of August. For him, the key to sparking interest is having a combination of activities within the city and trips farther afield, and putting an attractive spin on ideas.

“To get young people to appreciate the natural world, we need to think outside the box,” he says. “If we turn to them and suggest looking at flowers or appreciating some birds, that’s not going to get them going. But when we say let’s go and climb a mountain and take a photo from the top, that’s a bit more interesting. It’s all about finding the right hooks.”

Change of Scene, funded by Natural England’s Access to Nature grant scheme, aims to engage 300 young people over three years from five estates in the east of the city, and hopes not only to improve knowledge and enjoyment of nature but also to raise aspirations and goals through schemes like the Duke of Edinburgh’s award. It has already signed up 127.

“It’s not necessarily about the flora and fauna; it’s about that connection with the world around you,” says Howell. “When I take the young people on residentials, they tell me that one of the most enjoyable experiences is lying down on their back in a field, surrounded by darkness, looking at the stars. Because you don’t get to see that in a town – firstly you don’t get a chance, and secondly you’ve got all the light pollution. You just don’t know what an experience could open up for a young person.”

But for projects working exclusively with green spaces confined within urban areas, how easy is it to create a lasting and meaningful connection to nature? The reinvention of a green space on the Eric Estate in east London, financed by Kerrygold Farmer Cooperative, has certainly made a difference since it was completed in May, according to Kim Yucksei, who has been a resident on the estate for 28 years.

Planting vegetables

“There was a green space there, but it wasn’t used for anything other than people putting their dogs on there,” she says. “Now we’ve got a wonderful play area with tables, benches, natural wooden climbing frames, little hills and a recipe tree [which residents use to share recipes]. The children are very enthusiastic because there’s nothing else here. We all love it.

“The children helped plant vegetables and we left the labels on the plants so they can see what’s what – they go there and say ‘that’s the one I planted’, help water them, take out the dead leaves. They didn’t just plant it and leave it, they’re now looking after it, and they’ve got a sense of pride.”

Penny Wilson, head of play at Play Association Tower Hamlets, believes the health benefits of engaging children and young people with the natural world shouldn’t be underestimated. “If you watch a child playing outside they’re just doing so many physical tasks – they run for hours, dig, climb. If you told them to do it they wouldn’t, but they want to because they’re playing. You won’t get that level of physical activity with anything else. As far as their mental health goes, a child that doesn’t play is a frustrated, unhappy and unbalanced child.”

Failure to explore and play in nature can have a negative effect on a child’s development, she argues. “One of the things that happens in urban areas when children don’t play is that they grow up not having adjusted themselves – they haven’t found out who they are, they haven’t learned about their community. It’s a manifestation of what we call play deprivation – kids not getting playful risks may end up taking risks in drugs and aggressive behaviour.”


As this project draws to an end, I have asked the Playworkers to talk to the children and the parents about how they feel about the playing that has developed on the spaces over the last three years.

Here Hannah recalls for us some of the last days of playing on the sites where  we have become a part of the scenery and hope that playing children will continue to be a familiar sight.


Tuesday 28th June 2011

As usual this was a busy sessions with lots of families stopping by on their way home from school to let the children play for a while. We played chase and games with the hammock. One girl, who has now been coming for several weeks, came and hugged Habiba, telling her “you guys are my friends now”. These sessions are coming to a close now and we’re really going to miss the children here, having built strong bonds talking and playing together over time. Several of the children confide things in us that they say they can’t talk about with their parents, for example, their frustrations about Arabic school.


Wednesday 29th June 2011

We had a busy session this afternoon. Lots of kids came out when they saw us arrive and we played running games and did some painting. One of the parents brought out an inflatable paddling pool for the kids to play in and a group of children sat round pretending it was a cauldron and they were mixing spells. Some of the little children took water from it to water the plants and herbs their parents were growing in a grow box in the square. Meanwhile around the edges some of the older kids got on with games of football and riding their bikes.


Some parents came and chatted to Inga about how much their kids love coming out to our play sessions. One of the mums from our Thursday session has started walking her two young children to this session too and said she was really happy to give them an extra chance to play. When they first started coming on Thursdays they were very shy and found it hard to mix with other children, today they were running races happily with another brother and sister and joining in so much more than before.


Thursday 30th June 2011

Today was fantastic, two girls came in and announced they wanted to do another treasure hunt like we did last week. They spent ages making and wrapping bracelets to have as prizes and planning clues, working on little poems to make the clues rhyme. The treasure hunt made them really look at the space in detail and they seemed to take a kind of ownership in it as a result. Some other kids came along and took part in their treasure hunt, then made one for them and by the end of the session it seemed pretty much everyone had made a hunt for everyone else!


Over at one of the outside squares, Inga and Lavly played chase and dressing up games with some young children.  They took the small tent out which became part of some imaginative play, a small boy made it his ‘cookie shop’!


There’s some underlying racial tension on this estate which we sometimes see reaching into the ways the children of white and Asian families interact with each other but when a game is exciting enough it seems to over-ride this and they come more together. We saw this with the treasure hunts today and last week when everyone got involved in a chaotic game of running and catching 2 balls.


Sat 2nd July 2011

Its been a great play session today. As usual our regular kids were waiting for us at the square when we arrived. A couple of them grinned and pounced on the play trolley- “you always bring good stuff”! They took out beads to make jewellery, paper, fabric and the badminton rackets. 1 girl dragged Habiba over to the swing wanting to swing while they chatted and another began a badminton rally with Inga, we’ve seen the kids improve a lot at this over the last few weeks since we began bringing the rackets.


One girl took some paper and began creating patterns on it by gluing other bright pieces of paper as well as sequins and beads, it was really creative. She’s told me she wants to be an artist but her parents don’t encourage it as they want her to get a well-paid job when she leaves school! We try and give her as many opportunities as possible to make stuff. I often get the sense that the kids enjoy the freedom of what we do, we don’t organise an activity that everyone has to do but provide materials and encourage them to do their own thing, and we’re often surprised by the results! This girl in particular has created all kinds of things from a large woven paper ‘rug’ to decorations for the trees!


The second square began quietly with a few girls coming out to join us. They made bracelets and glued sequins in patterns to a patch of wall. More kids came out to join us and the session became really lively. Several families of children came, the older children in charge of the younger ones, the youngest wasn’t even two but got involved in using the chalks and running round to see what the older kids were playing! The sessions at this square in particular always seem to fly and end with the kids begging us to stay longer. We invite them to come to the next square but many of them are not allowed to go beyond where their parents can see them from a window.


One girl who comes every week to play and chat to us told me “I’m really going to miss you lot after the summer and all the laughing we do”! Like several of the other girls she is only allowed out to play there when we come, we always encourage the kids to come out and play when we’re not there too but for several of them they’re simply not allowed, their parents don’t trust that its safe.


The final square got really busy soon after we arrived, all kinds of games took place from craft making to turning the climbing frame into a ‘palace’ you had to climb into from one side and out of via a special route onto a pile of fabric. The same kids come week after week here. I asked one boy if he usually came and played here anyway but he told me he mostly just came on Saturdays when we came because our games brought lots of people outside together at the same time and he had more friends to play with!