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On rewilding the imagination


Rob Hopkins writes: The Wild Network’s mission is “to support children, parents and guardians to roam free, play wild and connect with nature”. According to their ‘Chief Wild Officer’ Mark Sears, mental well-being is proven to be clearly linked to time spent outdoors in natural environments, but this is neglected by modern schooling and parenting.

Rob Hopkins

Mark Sears has the wonderful job title of ‘Chief Wild Officer for the Wild Network’.  The Wild Network grew out of the film Project Wild Thing (see trailer below), and aims to reconnect young people with nature, inspired also by the findings of the 2012 Natural Childhood report.  Their mission is “to support children, parents and guardians to roam free, play wild and connect with nature”.  You can find out more about their work here.  Sounded like just the guy I needed to talk to…

I wonder how you would evaluate the state of health of our collective imagination in 2017?

I’d say it’s under stress, in the sense that we’re all under stress.  I think that in itself is having a massive impact on our ability to use our imagination.  It manifests in the amount of time we have available for it.  It just feels like it’s stressed.  There isn’t the space, the capacity in our minds to do that big stuff, the really important big, deep stuff.  Because we’re just too busy, too busy being stretched.

What are the ingredients for you of an imaginative childhood?

An imaginative childhood has a freedom to it.  Has a space to it.  Has a spaciousness to it, to bring up the stress point again.  The imaginative childhood has that space where a child is just allowed to be a child.  For a 3 year old, you might just want to imagine what might be down a little deer track and to find all that.  That might be a 3 year old or a 5 year old thing to do.

But to a teenager, to have that imagination, what might happen if I do something that might be a little daring and scary, and a bit naughty.  It’s that.  It has to have that element of risk and of play and that means it’s not outcome-focused and you’re not trying to meet a deadline or anything like that.  It has that space where they’re allowed just to do the things that children do.

But almost the flip side to that, that kind of spaciousness, is that kind of held-ness to it as well.  How do you then bring that expansiveness back into a held environment where you’re supporting them and really working with their needs?  So it’s me hearing them.  If you allow them to go and explore, to just be in their environment, in their place, but then bring it back into a held space where you listen to them, help them harvest that, and let that land into their bones a little bit.  I just don’t think we do that.

We don’t give them the space at all.  We’re in a school system where it’s not just the curriculum doesn’t allow things like Outward Bound weeks anymore, it’s more about in a school day the average lunchbreak is now 30 to 45 minutes, so just enough time to get some food.  There’s one 10 minute break in the morning and not two fifteen minutes as I remember as a child.  Everything is squeezed and squeezed and squeezed, to the point where there’s no spaciousness whatsoever.

Similarly, both within the school environment, not because teachers don’t want to, just because they’re not given the freedom to do so, and in the home environment, we’ve just forgotten how to hold and harvest and support and nurture.  So both of those things.  So it’s space, holding.

The other thing is community.  It being more than just the family unit.  This idea of 2.4 children, or whatever it is these days, the entire responsibility for that childhood is within those two people.  It’s almost too small a holding container for what a child’s imagination could be, in a way that historically a community might have been many children roaming around supported by a really large holding of a wider community.  We’ve lost that.  I wonder if that really in itself is shrinking a child’s imagination down almost to the lowest common denominator of a mum and a dad if you’re lucky, and maybe a sibling?

Actually, the collective imagination of hundreds of children, or 20 children from a village, roaming, getting up to stuff, we just don’t have that any more.  So that community element as well, a big container for their imagination, rather than this tiny little constrained thing.

Do you know of much research that explicitly looks at the link between getting out into nature, exposure to nature and imagination?  There’s a lot of research around forest bathing which looks at how it improves maybe communication skills, but I’ve not come across much that explicitly looks at imagination.

It doesn’t, and I wonder if we’ve stopped researching imagination in that way.  The zeitgeist seems to be around at the moment how much being in nature makes you happier and healthier.  I’ve not seen anything that really takes it on another level, which says it actually makes you more creative, can expand your horizons of thinking.  I’m not sure we’ve really, really nailed that actually.

We could do, because the evidence is there, and I know from my own work working in this space that actually when you see yourself as something that’s much larger than yourself, or even just larger than you and your human community, you start to tap into sights and sounds that are way bigger than you are.

I haven’t seen anything that can prove that that’s a beneficial thing or good for your imagination.  But I think it has to be there.  I wonder if actually we’ve stopped researching what imagination might be – what the possibility of imagination is?  Maybe that’s another thing that’s stopping our imagination, you know…

A recent report stated that children now spend less time outdoors than prisoners in the US prison system.  Why is that a problem?  What does that do to our kids when they’re just indoors all the time?

The list of issues caused by sedentary, inside-based childhood are pretty well documented and huge now.  If a child is less active, they will become more physically obese, and that’s well linked now.  Mental well-being is proven to be clearly linked to time spent outdoors in a natural environment.  Then there are things like myopia where there are studies in the UK now and it’s looking likely to be more than 50% of children aged 16 are myopic now, and a generation ago it was 20%.

What do you mean by myopic?

Shortsightedness.  In Taiwan, in Hong Kong, that level is up at 95%.  Again, it’s not just screen time, but I guess it’s about the horizons of your vision, literally.  So there are multiple things that are caused, and directly linked now, to a childhood where their roaming distance is shrinking, their time spent outdoors is shrinking.  All things that are relatively new in the making; a generation probably at the most in the making.  These are new problems to have.

I’d not heard of that myopia issue before.

I think it’s going to be a new route into this issue, actually.  Children are literally just using their eyesight for the short vision.  Screens, clearly being one thing, but even within the classroom, and things like that.  Whereas actually our eyes are designed to be looking long – short – long – short.  It’s almost like we’re not resetting our focus again back to the long.

We have a generation of young people who don’t get outside.  We have a lot of adults who rarely get outside either, unless they’re outward-bound types.  And we have all the problems that are arising from that.  So how in the current time-stressed scenario do we start to break this downward spiral?

The truth is with something that’s this complex, because it is complex, and deeply systemic, is that it’s one of those things that’s going to require a bit of vision.  A bit of big imagination thinking, that’s on one level, but on the other level we actually need to start doing things, so creating the conditions for this stuff to happen.  That means changing our everyday behaviours.

It’s that whole idea that every single individual action, if enough of us do it enough times, can actually start to scale.  That means doing things in schools, in communities and families.  It’s all of those things.  It’s big imagination for all of those things but it’s really, really tiny actions across all of those things.  So how do we support teachers to just take the curriculum outdoors again?  It’s not an add-on thing.  It’s not a forest school.  It’s “I can do a Keystage One maths class, but I can do it in a playground in Salford”, and that’s good enough.

It’s building capacity in those teachers.  It’s helping parents take really simple steps.  So a walk home from school one day a week instead of driving the car, and doing that in a way that’s via the churchyard and the canal bank.  That’s a single step.  It takes one car off the road for that one journey, and if enough of us do it, it starts to form those things.

Other things in communities, like how do you help the organisation Playing Out who pioneered it in Bristol and it’s now gone nationwide.  How do you support communities to start to take control of the way their community is managed again, so that they can get their kids riding their bikes round on the streets, which has all the knock on effects for the community?  So it’s multiple things, across multiple different channels.

Families, communities and schools.  But supported by this really big vision, which actually is that a rewilded childhood is a key to helping children thrive.  It’s a really big idea there, but it has to be supported.  It can’t be like “We need a policy for a rewilded childhood”,  because we could be waiting forever, and that ain’t going to happen.  And we haven’t got time to wait forever I don’t believe.  So it’s what do we all do to rewild our own family, our own community, our own school?

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