How much do you value getting children outdoors?

In the second of our two pieces to mark the release of National Parks England’s Valuing National Parks report, Tom Seaward looks at the importance of the National Parks in connecting children and nature.

Buy my brother a drink and he’ll tell you a story. In fact, he’ll probably tell you the story anyway. Drink or no drink.

He was tramping across a sodden Dartmoor landscape with a group of school friends. They had been sent out on an outdoors exercise, training for a Duke of Edinburgh award expedition. Looking up, they could see shadowy figures, standing out against the brackish moor. The group took them for teachers – sent to check up on their progress – and began to wave.

The figures didn’t wave back.

The boys became more frantic, waving with all the energy that wet, tired arms could muster. Eventually, after a minute or so of this frantic waving, one of the shadowy figures on the horizon raised an embarrassed arm before sloping off.

It was only on returning to their camp that night that my brother and his friends discovered that the shadowy figures were not those of their teachers.

‘So where exactly were you?’ they were asked. The boys jabbed at the map. ‘Ah,’ the teacher smiled, ‘that, lads, is where they train the snipers…’

It’s a story that is intimately connected to the harsh moorland landscape. Without the moor – without its wildness, protected by the Dartmoor National Park Authority – there would be no story. No story to fire the imaginations of a chattering bunch of teenage boys, strengthening their connection with and fondness for the outdoors.

Walking at Wasdale in the Lake District National Park. ©National Trust Images/Joe Cornish

National Parks England has today published a report, Valuing England’s National Parks, that demonstrates the clear contribution of the English National Parks to economic prosperity and wellbeing.

But our National Parks should also be valued for the important part they play in connecting children in this country with nature and the outdoors. In giving young people a taste of true wildness, they can help address the current disconnection between children and nature highlighted in last year’s Natural Childhood report. Children with experience of nature are more likely to care enough about the natural environment to want to fight to save it. This is especially important in light of this week’s State of Nature report. Published by the RSPB, it found that almost a third of the native species of wildlife studied has declined strongly over the past 50 years. 

A survey published earlier this year and quoted in today’s report asked people whether they wanted every child to experience a National Park first hand. 96% said they did.

For many children – including my brother – that first hand experience will be on an adventure challenge or outdoors expedition, like that required of Duke of Edinburgh Award hopefuls.

One such challenge is the Ten Tors, a long distance yomp across Dartmoor organised by the Army for groups of young people. Helped by other National Trust staff, Adrian Colston, General Manager for the National Trust on Dartmoor, has been coaching several teams for the event.

He says of Ten Tors, ‘it develops young people tremendously.’ It is about ‘team work, endurance, learning to suffer, gaining new skills, getting outdoors and close to nature – as well as providing the participants with a real sense of achievement.’ 

Adrian is Team Manager of National Trust Wild Tribe, a programme of activity days and events to encourage young people and families to experience the countryside and wildlife in new, exciting ways. Several young Wild Tribe teams completed the Ten Tors event earlier this month.

‘I strongly believe that Ten Tors participants will really drive the future of Britain’, Adrian says. ‘The future of the UK economy will not only be won on the playing fields of Eton, but also on the Tors of Dartmoor.’

Activities like the Ten Tors can help expose young people to the captivating wildness of our National Parks. These Parks play a vital part in efforts to get children outdoors – to spark a lifelong interest in nature. As today’s National Parks England report spells out, the contribution they make to the economic vitality of the country is considerable. But they should also be valued for the part they play in getting children outdoors and closer to nature.

Tom Seaward is the Natural Childhood intern.

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