Earlier this year I attended an event with speakers discussing the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) – the public health implications of early adversity on later development. At that talk childhood campaigner Sue Palmer said something that struck a chord with me. She used a phrase Awesome Childhood Experiences. I loved the play on words, but it also described to me what I, and my community, have been working towards for the last 7 years – a different childhood experience for children and families in our area. The Children’s Wood project began with the intention of making childhood (and adulthood) a more nurturing, tolerant and meaningful experience for people locally. To do this, we have facilitated regular outdoor community activities on our local wild space – The Children’s Wood and North Kelvin Meadow – and we now have a strong community feeling around the land.
You might wonder why we need an alternative, what’s wrong with the way we bring up children? Childhood is thought to be a time when children feel loved, supported, nurtured and are free of stress. However, sadly, this is not how many children feel growing up. For many children it’s a toxic, stressful or unsafe experience. Mental and physical health issues are impacting upon children as young as 5 . Because of this, there is a growing movement of people campaigning for a more nurturing, and developmentally appropriate, childhood. I think the Children’s Wood demonstrates two important ingredients which are missing from the lives of many children, but which can play an important role: community and nature.
Community has played a central role in the work we do at The Children’s Wood. It helps children to feel part of something bigger than themselves; part of a wider support network. Getting to know people of different ages, and from diverse backgrounds, builds empathy; children will learn about the struggles others have gone, or are going, through, and that we are ‘in it together’. It also builds trust in others since through our communities we will inevitably meet and get to know our neighbours. Being part of a community brings problems to be solved – we’ve experienced this many times through our campaign to stop a housing development and to get people outside into nature more. Collectively, more can be achieved.
Community is needed more now than ever, it is far too easy to be connected to social media and electronic devices. These feed addiction and stop us from connecting with each other and feeling alive. It also breeds a kind of individualism that can undermine our healthy social, emotional and physical development. Relationships are key to making us happy and through community life we can develop these bonds with other people. Social scientists have studied happiness levels and time and again they have found that our relationships are THE top factor in making us happy.
It is not surprising then that when relationships breakdown- and attachments are broken – children suffer. Attachments are central to us living a meaningful and healthy existence. The research into ACES highlights how toxic and long lasting the breakdown of relationships in childhood can be – this is because the attachment has been damaged in some way between the child and the adult(s). This then impacts on seemingly unrelated outcomes such as crime, physical health, mental health and even life expectancy.
The great news from this research is that there is hope. Relationships can be repaired and the wider community can help with this. Attachments can be forged with people out with family: teachers, police, youth workers, shop keepers, neighbours, community workers, volunteers and so one. These figures – YOU – in the community have the power to transform children’s lives and build resilience. All it takes is small acts of kindness, unconditional love and healthy boundaries.
YOU in the community have the power to transform children’s lives and build resilience. All it takes is small acts of kindness, unconditional love and healthy boundaries
This is where nature comes in. We have an in built connection with nature that is primitive and hardwired. Biologist E.O. Wilson describes this as ‘ the urge to affiliate with other forms of life’. Wilson developed a theory around this called Biophilia which supports the idea that we are biologically hardwired to respond to nature. We need it, just like we need social interactions. Being in greenspace for even 10 minutes can help us focus better, a walk in the park can reduce symptoms of ADHD and depression, playing in wild spaces increases resilience and the list goes on. Nature will always be there. A child can climb a tree and feel relaxed when life gets stressful or there is trauma at home. The tree, and nature in general, will provide some level of nurture and relief to that child.
Sadly, children are becoming more disconnected from the natural world than ever before, and they are suffering because of it. Children need to have contact with nature and until fairly recently they have always had a relationship with the natural world. If you go back in time you will find that children would have either played or worked on the land; we are now seeing the virtual disappearance of this type of childhood activity. Environmental writer Richard Louv has brought this to our attention in his book Last Child in the Wood. Louv coined the phrase Nature Deficit Disorder to explain the unhelpful behaviours associated with a lack of nature. Being in nature can reduce these symptoms and build resilience, happiness and well-being. This makes it important for us to look at how we can structure our communities so as to increase children’s access to greenspaces and reconnecting childhood to the natural world. This can happen locally in the heart of communities by cleaning up and utilising local wild and greenspaces.
Even more powerful though, is when both nature and relationships coexist like they do in the Children’s Wood and North Kelvin Meadow. When the two factors – community and nature – come together we have something very special. When this happens the child is being nurtured by two of the strongest influences in their environment; both of which build attachments and resilience. Facilitated community activities bring these two elements together and can build a more nurturing and rich environment for children and the wider community. I believe this is a great model for creating Awesome Childhood Experiences and I hope that more people take on their local wild spaces for changing childhood for the better.