Wild Child

Patrick Barkham

Granta, £16.99

Review by Nick Major

In 2011, the words conker and blackberry (small ‘b’) were removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. So were numerous other words used to describe the natural world. Presumably, the editors’ method was descriptive: they were responding to children’s existing vocabulary.

The nature writer Robert MacFarlane has been instrumental in reasserting the importance of these words for children’s imaginations. In 2017, he published The Lost Words, a book of 20 spell-poems, illustrated by Jackie Morris. The book was a country-wide success. A Scottish bus-driver called Jane Beaton even raised £25,000 to buy a copy for every school in Scotland.

Who knows if in the last two years the nation’s children have started using these words again? What’s undeniable is that the language we use betrays our preoccupations. As Patrick Barkham points out in his timely memoir, Wild Child, ‘childhood has moved indoors.’

It’s not surprising few go blackberry picking or play conkers anymore. Parents – for whatever reason – once let children roam far and wide. Nowadays we are more fearful and anxious of such important freedoms.

Some cite ‘stranger danger’, which has little basis in reality, and some the dangers of cars, which does. There is also health and safety culture, which is important in some areas of life, but it has also instilled in us an unhealthy attitude to risk-taking.

If today’s children seem alienated from nature it is because they are not given the opportunity to experience it first-hand. We have built over our green spaces, eviscerated our natural woodland, tamed our wildernesses, and now removed our lexicon for nature. Even when children are taken to wildlife reserves, nature is cordoned off and children are often told to look, not touch, except when dipping the odd net in a pond.

Many conservation charities, for all the good they do, have played a part in children’s timidity, commoditising nature and dressing it up as something cute and cuddly. If we are serious about ensuring the next generation appreciate and protect the natural world, they need to be allowed to explore it for themselves, in all its blood and glory.

In Wild Child, Barkham takes us through a year giving his children an education in wildness. He encourages them that a physical relationship with wildlife is of the utmost importance. His six-year old daughter, Esme, is a young Gerald Durrell in the making. One day, the family look out the kitchen window to see a grass snake swimming across their pond. In a flash, Esme runs outside and picks up the serpent. She holds it in her hands, “utterly delighted, its tail wrapped around her wrist.”

Barkham’s children investigate all sorts of wildlife, from caterpillar pupae to birds’ nests: “The belief that our scent will cause the parents to abandon their nest is a myth: most birds can’t smell well, if at all.”

Barkham, who has previously written books on Britain’s badgers and butterflies, is an enthusiast for local flora and fauna. His memoir reveals the abundance of wildlife that can be explored in our own back gardens, from vanishing diving beetles to keen-eyed sparrow hawks. He supplements this natural education with a report on his time volunteering at Dandelion, an award-winning outdoor nursery on the outskirts of Norwich. The only indoor space at Dandelion is a yurt, for when the weather is too extreme even for waterproofs. The nursery’s ethos is taken from the Forest School movement, with a dash of Steiner and Montessori philosophy thrown in.

Forest schools promote ‘child-led learning in woodland or other natural environments, with the opportunity to “take supported risks” and a holistic approach to learning which aims to foster “resilient, confident, independent and creative learners.”’ In practice, this means learning to use tools, climbing trees, learning about wildlife and having discussions at campfires. ‘Whatever activities are on offer, the children choose and are free to develop their own ideas, adventures and imaginative elaborations.’

As an example of all that is wrong with conventional schooling, Barkham’s daughter Esme gives her friend Josie a stuffed starling (the bird is found dead on the lawn and taken to a professional taxidermist). “Josie loves it, and takes it into school one morning. The teacher tells her mum that Josie can’t show it to the class because some children might get upset. They might also start asking questions about death.” In comparison, the children at Dandelion are encouraged to investigate dead animals, and to think about death - about what it means and how it makes them feel. When they find a dead animal (which is often) they simply give it a burial.

Of course, many teachers want to teach differently. But the rigidities of the state school system, with its fixation on testing and league tables, deny them the opportunity. One can’t help but conclude from Barker’s book that it is time to rethink the entire way our children are educated. In the midst of the pandemic, the Scottish Government is providing laptops to those children who need them. If they are serious about improving children’s wellbeing, they should also provide nature kits: wellington boots, butterfly nets, magnifying glasses, binoculars, collecting tins, and pocket field guides.

They could throw in a copy of Wild Child for the teachers too. When you think about it, there are very few lessons that can’t be taught outside. The common cry among technophobes is that prolonged ‘screen time’ is creating or exacerbating various mental health disorders among the young. There is some truth to this. Moreover, Barkham cites numerous scientific studies showing how much children benefit mentally and physically from being outdoors.

I have first-hand experience of the benefits of living with nature on the doorstep, and often in the house. I’ve lived with my family on a biodynamic farm for the last two years. Before, we lived in a town-flat, and the one marked change is my son’s sleep, which used to be a nightmare.

Within months of moving here, he slept for 12-hour stretches. There is rarely a day that passes that he is not outside, even in the most horrendous storms. Moreover, he has learnt how to sow seeds, plant potatoes off the back of a tractor, hoe the vegetable patch, sow seeds, milk a cow, feed a lamb, mow the grass, and use a drawknife and a hammer. He can differentiate between different species of bird and can tell if a plant has “gone to seed”. All without any kind of structured education.

Of course, not many children have these opportunities. But it wouldn’t take too much effort for schools or parents to facilitate this sort of experience. The local Steiner School, for example, regularly come out here for work and play. As that great nature writer Richard Jefferies once wrote: “All of you with little children…take them somehow into the country among green grass and yellow wheat – among trees – by hills and streams, if you wish their highest education, that of the heart and the soul, to be completed.” You could do one better and leave them out there on their own for a while too.