An Interview with Patrick Barkham, Part 3

Children playing in the rain
image: Patrick Barkham

What follows is the final part of the interview that I had with Patrick Barkham, author of Wild Child: Coming Home to Nature. (Click to read Part 1 and Part 2.) We end the interview with some of his thoughts about designing for ‘wild children.’
– Amy Wagenfeld, PhD, OTR/L, SCEM, FAOTA, Affil. ASLA

Amy Wagenfeld (AW): What do you see as the most challenging issue that’s preventing children from fully embracing nature? While you have spoken about it in previous questions, let’s fully encapsulate it here.

Patrick Barkham (PB): What’s preventing children from engaging with nature in one word is: adults. We despair about our children being hooked on electronic screens and so forth, as if it’s their fault but it’s down to us adults and I feel the problems are incredibly deep rooted in society.

There are two or three really obvious and practical things in society that I think apply to North America as much as Britain. One is the increase in fear about stranger danger, that our children are unsafe unless we’ve got our eyes on them all the time. Good parenting has become synonymous with perpetual supervision, and we’ve failed to see that this is a very recent phenomenon. It wasn’t a standard that we demanded of our parents as recently as, say, the 1950s. So somehow, we’ve got to get out of that psychological bind.

There’s another problem though, which I think is much more rational, and that’s traffic on our roads. In Britain there isn’t an enormous amount of public space. Our streets and roads are public space, but they are so busy with cars now that it really isn’t safe for children to bike and play on the street, as they once did. An obvious solution, and I think this is happening in the States as well as Britain, is to make streets more shared spaces and have car free Sundays on streets. Neighborhoods can potentially make this happen, particularly if you live on suburban estates with roads that don’t lead anywhere. Again, it’s up to us adults to better regulate our roads and to give children some rights on them, as well as to our car drivers. There’s a brilliant, very elderly sociologist in Britain named Mayer Hillman. He pointed out that we’ve prioritized the rights of car drivers over the rights of one of the most vulnerable groups in society, our children.

Esme holding newts
image: Patrick Barkham

The third thing that’s inhibiting children from being given a kind of modicum of freedom to play outdoors and discover nature is the absence of green space close to homes in cities. I feel like this is a particular problem certainly in British cities but it would be an incredibly popular government policy or a policy of states or any authority anywhere to say we believe it’s a modern day human right for urban dwellers to have high quality green space with a bit of wildness within a kilometer or within a mile of home. It could create a new generation of urban parks in our towns and cities. Again, I think this would help facilitate children’s freedom to play outdoors in nature. I do think there are things that we can do, and I think those three things—psychological fears about parenting and the danger of strangers, the predominance of traffic on roads, and the absence of high quality green space in urban areas—are preventing our children from having an independent, joyful relationship with neighborhood nature.

Milly climbing a tree
image: Patrick Barkham

AW: This next question really dovetails perfectly with how you addressed the last question, Patrick. If you were to offer advice to landscape architects about designing nature playspaces, what would it be?

PB: That’s such a good question and I had to think about it and ponder on this. I hesitate to offer advice to landscape architects who know much more about this than me. My thought is that urban parks need wild places. In terms of what I mean by wild places, I’m talking about places where this isn’t so much the design, but it’s more our management of them. These are places where we stop using chemicals and allow areas of longer grass and wildflowers to get going and allow scrubby areas and trees to establish so children can make dens and find places to hide. In terms of design, one of the greatest bits of advice I heard when I was at forest school was about the importance of having play areas for children that were open-ended and not closed, that allow for process and not necessarily product-driven play.

We tend to give children toys, for example, that only have a very limited range of uses.
I’m seeing this less and less, but you might get incredible play areas with fancy play equipment, but the play equipment may only have one or two uses. To have play equipment where children can go wild and do things with them, to have areas where there are loose bits of wood that children can make their own den with or there are materials that children can use and then reuse and knock down and build again, is one way for children to experience the wild. I saw just how popular straw bales are. At the forest school, the very young children would use these bales to create their own castles and different dens and elaborate role playing games around these things. Just keeping the design of these places open with lots of flexibility for children to devise their own uses for things—I think that would be a really, really good thing to do. You can always provide one really nice high end zip line, I’m never going to knock that, but just by having wild areas that aren’t created by adults, you are nurturing a generation of children.

It reminds me a bit, actually, of computer games, and one of my problems with computer games—which my children all play and enjoy, and I try and ration their use—is that all these computer games are built and created by adults, often very young adults. You’re still imprisoned in a computer game within the creative environment that’s been designed and created by an adult. I guess it’s similar in an urban park. It’s a space that has been designed by adults, and so for me, it’s all about just giving children as much autonomy and agency as possible within that environment and allowing them to build it and use it and reuse it and find their own uses.

If you missed the first two parts of this conversation with Patrick Barkham, or previous interviews conducted by the Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network (PPN), see the links below!

2 thoughts on “An Interview with Patrick Barkham, Part 3

  1. jtgillmar July 29, 2021 / 9:59 pm

    Having just read all 3 parts of the interview, I think a wide range of the general public, as well as those who are architects, landscape architects and urban and state park planners, would enjoy Patrick Barkham’s observations and family stories in response to Amy Wagenfeld’s questions.

    The increasing interest in Europe, the UK and North America in the idea of allowing some relatively “un-manicured green spaces” in public parks and parents more willing to allow their children some unstructured outdoor play there is encouraging. One indication is that Patrick Barkham’s children attend the public elementary school which allows them to have a weekly “field trip” back to their outdoor forest-oriented preschool, and the next step would be to include that type of experience in most places as part of the public school curriculum in cooperation with the local parks department.

    This movement reminds me, in part, of the books about adventure playgrounds by Lady Allen of Hurtwood who brought the concept to England from Denmark. In the 1960s I found one in a fenced grove in London’s Holland Park. Overseen by trained staff, it offered loose materials children could use to build temporary structures. It’s also encouraging to see more cities Patrick’s report that more cities are clearing congested streets of motor vehicle traffic on Sundays so children can ride bikes and play there.

    I can corroborate the benefits for children who have access to “informal green spaces” and the opportunity for unstructured play there both from my own experience and that of my children and granddaughter. Mine was in prairie places with a small stream, trees, edible berries to pick and non-poisonous snakes on the edge of a Chicago suburb. My children enjoyed growing up in an agricultural zone above a densely-populated urban part of Honolulu that includes an intermittent stream and some forested steep banks as well as small farms. My granddaughter has derived so much pleasure and opportunity from being free to pick up leaves, branches and flowers along the road and on our property which she can use creatively as she wishes.

    Japan has an ancient tradition, shinrin-yoku, “forest, or nature, bathing”, samrimyok in Korea, that recognizes the health benefits of taking a leisurely walk under the canopy of forest trees. In this digital era, with so much time spent on electronic devices, people of all ages benefit from regular contact with outdoor green space and vacation visits to especially wonderful and scenic places such as our National Parks.

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