Getting kids outside and closer to nature – the view from under the hedge

My name is Eleri Thomas, I am 22 years old, and yesterday I got lost under a hedge.

It’s not such an unusual activity at Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire, where on any typical morning children are seen everywhere running through grass and hiding in hedges.

Making lard balls at the May half term Bird Bonanza (c) Eleri Thomas

Making lard balls at the May half term Bird Bonanza (c) Kate Boursnell

On that sunny Wednesday afternoon I was sitting under a hedge looking for a pet caterpillar. As the Family Engagement Intern at Anglesey Abbey, my job is to discover what it is that’s exciting about being a child outdoors, and to help them find out for themselves. What I’ve found, especially under the hedge, is that the outside world is nothing short of a huge playground. And that came to me as a surprise, after the facts and figures of the Natural Childhood report published last year. The inquiry demonstrated a disconnect that is endemic today between children and their natural environment. Fewer that 10% of children in Britain play in wild places, down from 50% just a generation ago.

Those that visit Anglesey Abbey find it a wonderland of bugs, beetles and butterflies. Families will arrive and disappear into the woods for hours with binoculars and a magnifying glass, and our regular family events give a guided introduction to outdoor activities such as den building, bird watching and wild art. During the summer holidays these will take the form of Wild Wednesdays, and will be free to all our visitors who want to come and learn how to whittle a pea shooter or make a bird feeder. And the children always leave excited and eager for more.

The Natural Childhood report, though, tells us that the struggle is getting children out the door in the first place, and with visitors, we’re working with a ready audience. So at Anglesey Abbey we’ve been trying some other schemes to get children from Cambridge and the surrounding villages outdoors and into the mud. Jointly with Wicken Fen, our community engagement programme has links with schools, organisations and charities in the local area which encourages getting children outside and closer to nature. There are two in particular that I’ve seen in action and the results are clear – the outside world really is a playground that has to be seen to be believed. In April, I helped host a family volunteering session in our wildlife discovery area, with six families from the Bottisham Children’s Centre, a local organisation that supports families with children aged 0-5. All of the families lived within walking distance of Anglesey, and none had visited before. We planted snowdrop borders in the woodland and made some repairs to our natural woven tunnel. After tea and biscuits, the children were desperate to go back home and dig up their gardens. With plans to help construct a nature garden at the Children’s Centre itself, these children have access to a variety of natural environments in which to play and explore, and at such a young age, have the rest of their lives in which to form a relationship with the outdoors.

St. Philip’s School at Anglesey Abbey (c) Eleri Thomas

St. Philip’s School at Anglesey Abbey (c) Kate Boursnell

Later in April, I also visited St. Philip’s Primary School in Cambridge. They had visited Anglesey Abbey on a chilly day last winter, and our return visit had an exciting purpose – to help plan a nature classroom for their school. Located in a part of Cambridge with few gardens, and little green space, they nevertheless have in the school grounds a plot of land with great potential. Inspired by the things they’d seen at Anglesey Abbey, and excited at the prospect having lessons outside, they set to work with twigs, leaves and a lot of glue. Aspects of the various designs will be incorporated into the new garden, so I’ll be waiting with bated breath to see if the rollercoaster and zip wire make it into the final cut. Once it’s complete, a new resource will be in place for children to help themselves to as much nature as they can stomach.

In the meantime, there are hedges a-plenty just waiting to get lost in. 

Eleri Thomas is the Family Engagement intern at Anglesey Abbey.

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