Simon Barnes: why kids need lessons in the great outdoors

Children watch 17 hours of television a week. Turn it off and make them go wild — they’ll thank you for it.

Can I hold a worm, please? Of course — worms are a basic human right, and that counts double for a five-year-old. But don’t tell them that: just place this little wriggling streak of mucus onto the small and filthy hand that has been pushed out with such boldness and fear. Urrgh! The thrill of disgust, the thrill of connecting with another living thing, the thrill of life, all written on the child’s face in three giant Os: two eyes and a mouth. A worm!

I was in Moston, not one of Manchester’s more fashionable suburbs, beneath a sky of persistent Mancunian rain. A blackcap sang from the birches. And the children, 13 of them, were now in a deeply unfamiliar state. What strange substance from an alien world was covering them so liberally? Mud, mud, glorious mud.

These children had, like Columbus, discovered a new world that was there all along. They had discovered mud, they had discovered trees, they had discovered worms, they had discovered childhood. And all in schooltime.

These children are from year 1 at St Dunstan’s RC Primary School. They were taking part in Forest Schools, a joint enterprise between the local council and Lancashire Wildlife Trust. It will be self-perpetuating: teachers are trained up by the trust to take over outdoor education. We were all at Broadhurst Clough, a short walk from school, but most of the children had never been there before Forest Schools.

Teaching 13 children in the wild woods without losing any of them or finding another kind of disaster is a problem that would daunt most of us, but not Suzanne Stewart, Forest Schools’ leader. She’s been here before. “Just about every time, the teacher says, you want to watch that one, a real menace in class. And just about every time, that’s the one who shines.”

No surprise there. Outdoor lessons appear to reduce the symptoms of ADHD by 30% in town and 300% in a rural setting. Would you like some other numbers? Try these: 27% of children aged 8 to 15 have never played outside by themselves beyond their own gardens; 37% have never seen a hedgehog; and only 24% have a nature table at school. On average, children watch 17 hours of television a week. Ten per cent of children have been diagnosed with mental-health disorders; 1 in 12 adolescents self-harms; 35,000 children are on antidepressants; and 30% are overweight or obese.

Every year, we’re getting fatter and madder and we’re imposing these things on our children. The wild world helps with all these problems. Helps massively. Children need to be wilder.

Adam Moolna, communications officer with the trust, gave a child a centipede and it ran up his arm at terrifying speed: at this, the gathering achieved that high F above the stave normally achieved only by coloratura sopranos. “I remember a little Polish boy with very little English,” Moolna said. “He was silent, isolated, an outsider. At Forest Schools, we watched him change before our eyes.”

That’s not a miracle. It’s just what the wild world does. We all seek it out for the good of our souls and our sanity; we do so instinctively. We take walks, with and without dogs and golf clubs, we go fishing, do the gardening, ride horses, ride bikes, run around the park, feed the ducks, take weekends in the country, days by the sea and drinks in the garden.

However, we’re in danger of leaving behind a generation that has forgotten how to do such things. How very good, then, that a few people are trying to put that right. The St Dunstan’s 13 toasted marshmallows over a fire, built a den, found living creatures, scrambled about in trees, had sword fights, hid behind bushes and renewed their souls in a birch glade ankle-deep in mud. Health, sanity, life. The wild world.

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