I recently had the pleasure of having an extensive Zoom interview with Patrick Barkham. He is an award-winning author and natural history writer for The Guardian. Patrick’s books include The Butterfly Isles, Badgerlands, Coastlines, Islander, and Wild Child. He has edited an anthology of British nature writing, The Wild Isles, and is currently writing a biography of nature writer and wild swimmer Roger Deakin. Patrick lives in Norfolk, England, with his family. What follows will be a three-part series of our conversation about Wild Child that, in all actuality, reads more like a story than an interview.
– Amy Wagenfeld, PhD, OTR/L, SCEM, FAOTA, Affil. ASLA
Amy Wagenfeld (AW): Patrick, thanks so much for making time to speak with me today on behalf of the ASLA Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network (PPN). Let’s start with this question. Would you please tell us what your favorite place in nature is and what makes it special?
Patrick Barkham (PB): My favorite place in nature is a beach in Norfolk in England called Wells-Next-the-Sea. It’s a small port on the varied marshy North coast and next to it, about a mile beyond over the marshes is the sea, and I love it because it has an enormous golden sandy beach, and sand dunes and pine woods behind it.
It’s very reminiscent of beaches on the East coast of North America and in its scale, a place where you can go and just find peace and space, both of which are two things at a kind of premium in today’s world. It’s also this vast arena of freedom for children, where they can run free and enjoy themselves. Obviously, it’s a place very rich in nature, but for us humans it’s the blank canvas on which we can play and create. My children love drawing in the sand or building the classic motif castle as the tide comes in over the sand. There’s just no end to things that you can do in this environment by engaging peacefully with it.
AW: Thank you, Patrick. What a lovely response, and I too am very drawn to water. Now shifting gears a bit, would you please share with us your inspiration for writing Wild Child: Coming Home to Nature?
PB: I became a parent nine and a half years ago, and obviously for every person becoming a parent it is a life-changing experience. I began to reflect upon the sort of childhood my children were going to have, and I realized that it was going to be very different from my own. We had been living in London and I moved back to Norfolk, which is a very rural county in England where I’d grown up and 35 years before I had roamed pretty freely.
From about age eight or nine from my home onto a common nearby I would cycle three miles to primary school occasionally. And as a 10-year-old on my own I cycled to other places, so I had some degree of roaming freedom and I realized that my children weren’t going to have that. I was concerned that they would be unable to develop a relationship with other species, with wildlife, without that freedom to roam and discover for themselves in the outdoors. That’s really when I started looking at ways in which we could raise our children in the modern world that still gave them roaming freedom and an ability to make relationships with other species, and so I guess that’s what drove me.
AW: This is perhaps a follow-up question, Patrick—how did you get interested in forest schools, a main focus of the book?
PB: I’ve worked for a long time as a reporter and writer for The Guardian and I still work for them three days a week, writing mainly about the environment and nature. I think I saw a story about a new kind of forest school, a fairly radical nursery for young children in which they would be outdoors at all times in all weather, opening up near me in Norfolk. I pitched it as a story to my editors and they said yes, so I went along to research and write about this particular school. My twins Esme and Milly were 18 months old at the time, and coming up to nursery school age, so I took them along as well. They played there whilst I interviewed the two teachers who had founded Dandelion Forest School, as it’s called. Seeing that setting—just a simple kind of muddy field with a few tents in it, a yurt, a campfire, and some trees to climb—and talking to other parents whose children were going to outdoor settings like that and seeing it for myself had a kind of magic. Things like children having to learn how to climb a tree themselves and assess the risk and then have to get down again themselves without too much mollycoddling, it all made sense. It seemed kind of idyllic and lovely, so I set about finding out more about this movement, which is relatively new in the UK since the 1990s. In Denmark and Northern European and Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Norway they’ve had these outdoor schools for preschoolers for quite a long time. Since its arrival in the 1990s, the forest school movement has steadily developed here without any government support whatsoever and is an entirely grassroots organic process.
It seemed quite significant, so my children ended up going to Dandelion for nursery school. I began volunteering there and I spent more than a year there, volunteering one day a week, and that formed the basis of my explorations in Wild Child, seeing what sort of effect this kind of school outdoors has on young children. My children have ended up continuing going there, even though they’re now of primary school age, which is between the ages of five and 11. They attend one day a week, which is a special arrangement we’ve made with our local state school. I’ve seen the positive impact that it has had on them.
AW: That’s a phenomenal story, Patrick. You mentioned risk and unstructured play and I wondered if you might like to elaborate on each.
PB: I’m glad you just mentioned unstructured play. For me, the big lesson from my early years as a parent and reading and learning and watching in forest school is simply that the greatest gift we can give our children is the ability to play in an unstructured way outdoors as well as indoors and give them that space to develop their own creativity and imaginations. I think parents are always looking for things to do with their children and to find structured activities. We need to understructure parenthood and our children’s childhood and give them that gift, which is free play in nature, because that really is the key to children’s physical wellbeing, mental wellbeing, and development as creative individuals. Of course we know that we all need creativity, more than probably any other working skill in life nowadays.
AW: I couldn’t agree more because, as you know, unstructured outdoor play also helps children become competent, confident, and resilient.
PB: I’ve read quite a few books in a similar vein to mine from North America and I can see that our experience in Britain and the US are very comparable in terms of childhood and what’s been happening, the big trends. It simply isn’t a type of thing that’s particularly bad in one nation, it’s a set of trends shared by the affluent world.
AW: It’s deeply concerning and likely an issue shared by many in the landscape architecture profession and beyond.
Click here for Part 2 of the conversation, published here on The Field the following week.