“We sometimes meet children who’ve never seen a sheep or a duck before,” said Zoe Stevens, “and there are lots who don’t know what a pheasant is, or even a daffodil.”
Zoe works for the National Trust in the White Peak and one of her summer holiday tasks is to encourage families and children to explore the local countryside, and meet the creatures who live there.
“Have you held one of those before?” she asked a toddler as a garden snail slithered over her fingers.
Playing outdoors was a big part of Zoe’s Derbyshire childhood, she said: “I didn’t have a computer. Now children have all these indoor activities using a screen, but we say there are lots of simple things you can do outdoors that are free, give you exercise and are brilliant fun.”
Organising a snail race, pond dipping, climbing a tree, and hunting for fossils are among the ‘50 Things To Do Before You’re 11 3/4’ that Zoe and her colleagues are promoting in a free scrapbook that families and children can pick up from National Trust properties. The aim is to help reverse the decline in outdoor play among British children.
A report by the National Trust found that less than one in ten modern children regularly play in ‘wild places’, whereas most youngsters played in their ‘local patch of nature’ when today’s parents were children.
The ‘Natural Childhood’ report adds that playing outdoors ‘exposed to nature’ helps children lose weight and improve their health, and also improves mental health and social and academic skills.
“Children who learn outdoors know more, understand more, feel better, behave better, work more cooperatively and are physically healthier,” said report author Stephen Moss.
But as Zoe pointed out, it’s also a lot more fun to climb trees and make mud pies than sit inside all day. Over the last three years, Zoe reckons up to 15,000 children have taken up the challenges in their ‘Wild Adventure Scrapbooks’ at Ilam Park and Dovedale.
Dovedale is great for fossil hunting, hill climbing and cave exploring, said Zoe, whereas Ilam is good for den building, hunting for scary beasts and bugs, and playing pooh sticks.
Families are encouraged to tick off their adventures in their own local parks and gardens as well as at National Trust properties, and although Zoe herself prefers keeping a scrapbook, there’s even a website and app for those who want to combine screen and wild time.
Researchers have found that if children have fun in the natural world before they reach secondary school, they’ll be much more interested in protecting the environment when they’re adults.
David Attenborough said: “No-one will protect what they don’t care about, and no-one will care about what they have never experienced.”
Outdoor games are ideal for school holidays, Zoe reckoned: “You can play pooh sticks every day, and it will still be exciting, and if you go bug hunting you’ll find something different every time.”
People over 11 3/4 are allowed to take part too. Parents can often get very competitive with pooh sticks, Zoe said, and children often find their grandparents are expert stone skimmers and grass trumpet makers.
“One grandmother said to me: ‘We’ve been so busy playing pooh sticks and building dens that they haven’t asked for their iPads all day.’”
For more information, visit www.50things.org.uk.