An Interview with Patrick Barkham, Part 2

Children playing in nature
image: Patrick Barkham

Welcome back to the second part of my interview with Patrick Barkham, author of Wild Child: Coming Home to Nature. (Click here to read the first part, published last week.) We pick up the conversation by looking at the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on children and their families’ connections with nature.
– Amy Wagenfeld, PhD, OTR/L, SCEM, FAOTA, Affil. ASLA

Amy Wagenfeld (AW): As we continue to navigate through the current pandemic, what are your thoughts about connecting children and their families with nature? And, have you had any new ideas or thoughts emerge as a result of the lockdowns and restrictions that we’re experiencing?

Patrick Barkham (PB): The thing that I’ve seen is perhaps small and off point, but we in Britain had our schools shut for more than a term, so almost half a year of our schools being shut and learning either not being provided at all or via online lessons at home. It was a really obvious point to me that in the depths of the pandemic, even in the worst moments of the curve, we could have still provided schooling for our children if we had moved learning outdoors. There was some slightly hopeful talk of that in Britain at the start of the first lockdown and nothing’s really happened with it. The government hasn’t made it a priority or enabled it or funded it in schools.

Understandably, hard-pressed, under-resourced schools haven’t been able to deliver outdoor learning in any enhanced way, and indeed in most schools, there has been less outdoor learning since the pandemic struck than before because teachers have had to focus back on the apparent, key maths and English and so forth that they’ve missed out on. Maths and English can be taught outdoors equally well as indoors. I’ve met some inspiring teachers who are teaching very conventional hard maths and science and English outdoors and getting better results for the children. The children are outdoors and they’re able to concentrate and focus much better when they’re outdoors than when they’re cramped in a noisy, busy classroom, which for some children can lead to sensory overload. My answer would be that the pandemic has been a real opportunity to massively expand outdoor school for everyone.

So far the government has not created any new policies that could enable more outdoor learning in Britain but I’m hopeful that it still might happen because outdoor learning is being talked about more. It is recognized as a safer way of learning than indoors in the middle of a pandemic, and also potentially a more effective way of learning about conventional academic subjects like maths, English, and science, but in an outdoor setting. I’m hopeful that, if this starts being talked about by ordinary people and parents and grandparents and teachers, at some point, it will land on the political agenda and the government will take action to enable it a bit more. So far, it’s been a missed opportunity, but I think other societies as well are looking more at outdoor schooling and I think we will start to grapple with its importance. In a way, of course, the pandemic has been a massive boost to online learning and so everyone’s been spending more time in front of screens, not less, but I see potentially two things happening: more screens but also more outdoors, in real life teaching.

[See the Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN’s interview with Sharon Danks, Founder and CEO of Green Schoolyards America, for more on outdoor classrooms.]

Generally, the United States is a few years ahead of us on things like this, but in Britain there’s some good things going on with inspirational teachers and educators doing things like creating edible classrooms and school allotments and doing loads of work to get children learning more about where food comes from, cooking, and growing their own food that they’ll eat in the canteen, in school gardens, and so forth. This is all brilliant stuff; it’s just unsupported by government policy at the moment. It’s down to the individual brilliance of certain teachers, which is a shame.

AW: It is an area of evidence-based research that is perfect for landscape architects to partner with educators and public health practitioners to determine the effectiveness of outdoor learning.

PB: Absolutely. We’ve got small pieces of peer-reviewed academic, scientific research in Britain showing that conventional academic attainment is higher when children are given the opportunity to learn in outdoor settings. And, children who have had forest school sessions within a conventional state school or have once a week gone on a two-hour forest school session have also had increased performance as well as improved metrics, like their confidence and school attendance. We need more, and we need people to start shouting about it and then hopefully, government and state policy will follow.

image: Patrick Barkham

AW: A question for you to ponder: what do you hope for this and future generations of children and their relationship with nature?

PB: A really good question. I hope that children will continue to develop a great love of nature and realize that they can find great joy and happiness and pleasure in more intimate relationships with species other than our own and in natural settings and natural places.

At the moment, we’re seeing a huge awakening amongst young people about the climate crisis and an extinction crisis, if you like. So many very inspirational young people and teenagers are becoming increasingly politically active on the environmental stage and that’s wonderful, but my fear is that nature becomes another thing for a very anxious generation to be anxious about. So that’s why my greatest hope is that children spend time in nature and learn what great pleasure and joy is found there, because I think we need those two things. Of course, we need the sense of jeopardy and the realistic sense that nature is in great peril and life on this planet is in great peril, but we also need to realize that nature not only needs saving and we must be anxious about it, but that we can find great pleasure and joy in it. It’s something that enhances our life and is a fun thing, as well as a provider of food and clean air and all the things we need to live and survive.

images: Patrick Barkham

AW: That’s beautiful. Do you have any special stories to share with our readers about being in nature with your children?

PB: My stories are all small and modest, but I hope they illustrate a point that all of us can find pleasure in nature. Children are seriously inventive and they will always find something to do and we as parents or grandparents or guardians don’t have to provide them with complex experiences. We don’t have to guide them in nature, we can just let them play and explore and find their own fun and games.

Just recently, we’ve been on holiday to a stony beach in Britain. The children found lots of what they called sea glass, which is bits from old broken bottles that have been rolled around on the pebbles in the sea for so long they’ve become beautiful and smoothed over bits of rubbish. Essentially the children went about collecting it as if it was the most priceless treasure, and in doing so, they were undertaking a sort of beach clean, removing these pieces of glass from the sand. I was amazed at my son Ted—he is only seven—as he spent hours collecting the sea glass until he had a jam jar full of it. My greatest pleasures as a parent was just being there on the beach and hearing him singing to himself as he was collecting his sea glass; it was such a picture of childhood contentment. It was nothing that I had done; I hadn’t pointed this out. He discovered it for himself. I think children need to discover things for themselves, because then they decide what’s magical. They don’t need a parent necessarily pointing, going “that’s magical” or “that’s amazing, isn’t it?”

That was just a lovely little experience we had together. Another experience we had, which was slightly less comfortable for me, but was very special for Esme, my daughter who’s nine, is that we live fairly near a river. It’s quite a tourist spot and is a place where you can hire boats and potter about on this river. There’s lots of people down by the water side and there’s people feeding the feral pigeons that live there. When the lockdown started, there weren’t so many people around, and Esme started feeding these pigeons. She was desperate; she, like many small children, loves any kind of pet and was desperate to catch a pet of her own. She ended up discovering that by being incredibly still she could catch a pigeon with her bare hands. And she caught a pigeon on several occasions, but it’s actually the law in Britain to not take any kind of wild bird. We knew she couldn’t take it home and keep it as a pet, but for her, being able to catch a pigeon and stroke it and then let it go again and watch it wheel away and rejoin its friends was a really magical moment. Again, it wasn’t something that I created. I didn’t say to Esme, “let’s go and catch some pigeons today.” She just discovered this for herself. I felt slightly embarrassed as people went by and heard people say, “that little girl’s just caught a pigeon,” and people were a bit shocked, I think. But Esme and the pigeon were unharmed, and they were let free very quickly. For Esme it was a moment that she might remember for the rest of her life, where she’s bonded with a wild bird and not surprisingly, she wants to help wild birds more than ever now.

AW: Such rich stories which, as you can see, brought tears to my eyes.

Stay tuned for Part 3 of the conversation, to be published here on The Field next week! [Click here to continue on to the next installment.]

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