Have today’s children lost their connection with the natural world?

Bringing people closer to nature like these moths helps bring the environment to life

Bringing people closer to nature like these moths helps bring the environment to life - Credit: not Archant

A recent report says four out of five children have lost their connection with the natural world. Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Tom Marshall looks into why, and how the Trust is aiming high for the next generation

Sticklebacks in a jam jar (preferably with the jam taken out first), climbing trees – and invariably falling out again – and discovering that iridescent feather at the local park that simply must have come from a tropical bird.

These are all ways that many of us built a connection with the outside world as youngsters. While most of us wouldn’t consider a mud pie a culinary delicacy any more, a little bit of nature has probably stayed with us. Whether it means we now feed the birds, take our children to the local park to explore, or simply support a wildlife charity every month from our pocket.

‘Playing out’, getting dirty and doing it all again the next day seemed a right for most of us, however when it comes to connecting with our environment, today’s generation seems to be slipping away.

A recent study suggested that almost three-quarters of today’s adults regularly played outside and explored our countryside as children, today that figure has slumped to just one in five youngsters.

At whose door you lay the blame is still a source of debate; the computer generation of ‘virtual’ experiences, tighter restrictions on school field trips or the concerns of parents over child safety in our communities. The net result though, is what researchers are calling ‘nature deficit disorder’ – an almost complete lack of connection with the outside world.

There are obvious benefits to engaging with the environment and wildlife, from health and wellbeing to developing the conservationists of tomorrow with the early passion that must have gripped the likes of Sir David Attenborough and Chris Packham.

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For decades the Wildlife Trusts have recognised this, whether it be on nature reserves, in the classroom or on our farms, we’ve been getting young people stuck into nature.

After taking on the 200 acre Bickley Hall Farm in 2006, Cheshire Wildlife Trust has welcomed over 10,000 children through the gates; to delve into ponds, run through wildflower meadows or come face-to-face with swallows in the century-old barn.

But this is not just an experience for those who already live within our rural communities. Thanks to the support of the Trust’s corporate partners like Urenco and M&S Bank, the transport costs that can find schools stumbling at the first hurdle have been overcome, allowing schools from some of the region’s most urban and deprived areas to take a few precious hours to bring the curriculum to life.

After just a few years, the dedicated education team bringing the farm’s hidden creatures to life has seen schools returning with their classes summer after summer, while outreach programmes like the recently launched Forest Schools and Wild Kids initiatives and previous programmes like the ‘Primary Feathers’ scheme, find the Trust taking the story direct to local communities.

A vision for the future

While coachloads of tired youngsters trundle down the farm track each summer worn-out by a day in the countryside, the one factor the Trust has always struggled with is the weather.

The rustic charm of hay bale seats and draughty barns does have its limits when a class full of children return drenched from an unseasonal spring downpour.

Now, in a bid to tackle nature deficit disorder and create a state-of-the-art facility that can welcome this, and future generations, the Trust has made an ambitious plan. It wants to transform a 100 year-old cow-shed into a learning facility that will put the very best facilities at the centre of the outdoor experience.

Gone will be the draughty doors that have held back Longhorn cattle with ideas of escape, so too the hay bales and seats decorated with swallow droppings. Instead, classrooms, purpose-built washrooms, multi-media displays and storage – all ready to inspire, whatever the weather.

Jan Shone, from Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s People and Wildlife Team, feels the time is right for the plans. ‘We know after eight years that what we have to offer here continues to be a crucial part of many schools’ commitments to engaging young people with the outdoors and nature,’ she said.

‘However, there remains the slightly embarrassing moment when the portable toilets break down or rain persists so much that we’re rushing the youngsters into the barn with limited opportunities to get dry and keep them inspired for the rest of day.

‘We want to keep the traditional and rustic experience of visiting the farm that makes it so special, but ensure the children have the highest quality facilities when they’re here – whatever Mother Nature decides to throw at us.’

The £100,000 project was kicked off by a public appeal earlier this year dubbed the ‘50/50’ appeal, in recognition of the boost by the Heritage Lottery fund meaning that every £1 donated by the public will be doubled. The scheme also has backing from the Meres and Mosses Landscape Partnership, administering funds from one of the UK’s first Nature Improvement Areas, within which the farm sits.

With such an historic structure, the wildlife will also be taken care of, with special cavities in the roof space for brown long-eared bats and additional artificial nesting bays for swallows – where it’s hoped live pictures may be beamed to the classroom below for visitors to enjoy Springwatch style entertainment during the lunch break.

Jan added: ‘We have a unique opportunity here to take a building that was once the beating heart of the farm and have it echoing again not to the sound of cattle, but dozens of youngsters excited by their discovery of what nature has to offer, whatever their background.’