I live in London now but my world was shaped by the valleys of the south Tyne, overlooked by moorlands up top and cloaked in deepest forest down below. In the 1980’s Northumberland felt massively undeveloped, especially in terms of housing and roads. My brother and I benefited from unfettered access to acres of rough pasture, gnarled copses, and shady pools. Often, in the summer holidays, not another human voice or passing car could be heard for hours, and the only soundtrack to our playing would be our panting dog alongside us and bees buzzing in the garden.
Or at least, that’s one version. Another is that my parents were always nagging me to put my book down and get outside for a change.
Well, whatever the truth, something worked because I now write books for a living, and my last series – The Last Wild trilogy – explores an increasing disconnect with nature in the UK. A Mothercare survey last year revealed that 26% of parents say their children spend less than 30 minutes playing outdoors. 37% of today’s parents have never taken their children looking for wildlife, and 90% have never made a treehouse or den with their kids.
Does this matter, and if it does, can reading books – a traditional indoor activity – help change things? It matters because an early connection with the wild environment can not only enhance wellbeing, but helps develop more ecologically considerate citizens in later life, which is in all our interests.
But in the face of a risk-averse parenting culture, increased screen time throughout the family home and school, along with shrinking green space, how can books help? There may not seem an obvious link between curling up in a beanbag with one – especially if it’s a Kindle – and the great outdoors, but this week at the Garden Festival in Hatfield House, I’m going to be arguing that they are.
Getting children interested in the natural world, and out in the garden or park, is first and foremost about storytelling. Who might live in this pond? What’s under this rock? How far do you think we can see if we climb this hill? A mind open to literary imaginative possibilities will always engage with these prospects quicker, and likewise, playing outside actively shapes brain development in children, helping them develop a decision making process. Should I touch this? Where did the water go, and why?
In my books, although the universe is dystopian, I tried to keep the adventures rooted in outdoor play – from chases through the woods to crawling in tunnels, jumping in rivers and exploring mysterious landscapes. Identifying flora and fauna become crucial parts of the narrative. You can reverse these, and ask your kids to make up stories about the park you just visited, or their afternoon in the garden.
If you want your children to spend more time in the garden, don’t begin with the health benefits, but start with a story. Perhaps about buried treasure …
Piers Torday will be speaking on Reading in the Wild at the Garden Museum Literary Festival at Hatfield House on Saturday October 32015. Tickets can be reserved from gardenmuseum.org.uk or by calling 020 7401 8865.