Wild Child: coming home to nature
Patrick Barkham, Granta (2020). Hardback, £16.99. 342 pp.
This is a lovely book, and could be read for enjoyment and instruction by anyone who works with younger children, at home or elsewhere. Patrick Barkham is a nature writer, author of four previous books (on butterflies, badgers, coasts and islands) and a regular contributor to The Guardian. This is not a ‘how to’ book, although it includes many experiences of exploring nature with children. It is more a reflection on how children learn about everything, and nature in particular. The focus is Barkham’s own family (the children are non-identical twin girls and a younger boy), but he also interacts with many other children while volunteering at his local outdoor nursery, and visiting forest schools in other parts of England.
His children first discover nature in the overgrown cemetery beyond the garden of their first house in Norwich. As the children grow, the family moves to more space in a village outside the city, and the children attend a nearby, highly innovative outdoor nursery. They are fortunate with the headteacher of the local primary school who allows the children one day at the outdoor nursery even after they are school age.
Some of the book’s chapters describe the changing seasons at the nursery: spring, summer, autumn and a muddy, snowy winter (it’s the year of the ‘beast from the east’). Barkham volunteers there throughout the year, but not on the days his own children attend. Other chapters cover different aspects of nature: birds’ nests and chicks; ponds and dipping for tadpoles, beetles and newts; caterpillars and butterflies. The children learn in a matter-of-fact way about death, and bury dead birds, or take good specimens to the local taxidermist. There’s a running debate about collecting and keeping specimens, and whether wildlife can be pets.
Amongst lively and colourfully worded descriptions of what children do and say (with many verbatim quotations), Barkham discusses in a very straightforward way the many studies which demonstrate the positive impacts on child development of interacting with nature. He also discusses the negative effects of too much time indoors, interacting with screens and anxious about the outside world. For those readers who wish to look further into such studies, there is a full set of references, arranged by book chapter at the end.
Some readers may be thinking: rural Norfolk, Guardian– writer, typical middle-class elitist with no idea of the problems ‘real people’ face. But two of the forest schools Barkham visits belie that stereotype. ‘Wild things in Nottingham works with ‘English as a second language’ children, mostly refugees, many of them coping with horrific past experiences, and few of them speaking much English as yet. Being in nature provides them with experiences for which spoken communication is non-essential. ‘Wilderness schooling’ in Northumberland helps under-achieving children to regain motivation for learning, while experiencing the outdoors and wildlife, and the organiser is accumulating data to prove it works.
Barkham does not hide the fact that children are individuals and not always 100% motivated to learn from wild nature all the time. However, he does insist that ‘however imperfect our lives and our homes, we can add doses of daily nature in a way that enriches us all’. To make this happen for everyone, we need to re-think how our towns, especially our roads are organised. The book was written before the covid19 crisis, but the message fits well with much discussion of how reduced traffic is improving air quality in cities and how provision needs to be made for the resurgence in cycling. He also urges reform of the national curriculum and the emphasis on testing children: modern schools too often stifle the natural creativity and self-motivation that children show. If I have a criticism of the book, it’s the relative lack of engagement with the extensive literature on alternative ways to organise educational systems. This seems a pity given that the original ‘free -school’, A.S. Neill’s Summerhill, is not far from Norwich (in east Suffolk) and is about to celebrate its centenary.
Although I noted that this is not a ‘how to’ book, it ends with a helpful appendix: ‘sixty-one things to do and ways of being with children outdoors’ and a bibliography of helpful and relevant books. The book has no photographs, but includes some maps and delightful chapter-title line drawings. Highly recommended.
Froglife Trustee; honorary lecturer, University of Glasgow.