It isn’t always easy to provide young children with the natural spaces they need, but it’s a challenge we must overcome
The quality of an environment can partly be ascertained by the presence, or otherwise, of certain ‘indicator’ species. In areas of outstanding natural beauty, for example, we often find a broad diversity of creatures; in heavily farmed areas of monoculture we often see the converse, with a dramatic reduction of the numbers of species able to use the habitat.
The types of species we look for might be pollinators; beach creatures, if we’re in a coastal area; or birds, which are often a good indicator of how varied the local habitat is. But what about children? What can they reveal about the health or otherwise of an area?
I was attending a meeting in a London park a couple of weeks ago (yes, I really do get the best gigs). I was late having zigzagged my way through some back roads and become thoroughly lost. I did find a helpful chap and his son who were able to assist me, but then got further held up by a fascinating dialogue with the child, who was about to start school.
This child had been taken to the hairdressers much against his will to have all his hair shaved off in readiness for the big day. His views on this matter were colourful, and he added emphasis to his point with particularly vigorous hefts on his scooter, which sent him careening alternately into his Dad and some railings. Whilst he acknowledged the fact that his trainers-with-the-light-up-heels had gone some way to assuage his indignation, he still felt short-changed.
I was sorry to leave him as I’d rarely encountered a case put with such alacrity, precision and pinpoint razor accuracy.
Anyway – to the park. As we walked around, looking at how the park managers had cleverly intermingled structured play spaces with wild and natural areas, we were repeatedly treated to the sight of some 30 or so six-year-olds engaged in some kind of torture – running as they perambulated the park boundaries accompanied by a loud and enthusiastic teacher.
“Oh, how nice,” I said. “What a great engagement with the local school!”
Much shooting of sidelong glances followed this comment and a few throats were thoughtfully cleared before I was put right in no uncertain terms: “No, we don’t want them here,” they said. “They spoil the peace of the park for other people.”
It was an awkward moment. I was torn between wanting to champion the rights of the children to have access to nature whilst acknowledging that, actually, yes, it was a tad invasive if you had come down to enjoy a book in the sun, or if you were a small dog wanting a peaceful leg cock against a handy tree (I saw at least one retreat cowering into the long grass before the onslaught of small people).
It turned out that the local primary school had temporarily lost the use of its school grounds as the main building was being refurbished, hence their use of the public park. (In reality, of course, there are many new free schools opening up with no access to school grounds at all and they have to make use of local walk-to green spaces – select committee enquiry into parks, please note.)
As we walked around some of the wilder reaches of the park, we saw a few indicators – a blue rope hanging off a tree, small footprints in the mud, the odd bit of torn jumper caught in a bush. “Aha,” exclaimed the natural play expert in our midst, “the child as an indicator species! Evidence of their use of this wonderful natural space. Evidence of how good the space is. How brilliant.”
And I reflected on how difficult it is to make sure that we balance the need for children to get outside into the natural environment on a daily basis with making sure that we don’t inadvertently step on toes. And that some toe-stepping is sadly inevitable as our school grounds becoming increasingly eroded.
Juno Hollyhock is executive director of Learning Through Landscapes, a UK charity dedicated to enhancing outdoor learning and play for children. For services and resources for early years settings, visit ltl.org.uk