PODCAST: Wild Thing, You Make My Heart Sing

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Carl speaks to David Bond, who made Project Wild Thing, the film that helped spark a worldwide movement to get children back outside and reconnecting with nature.

(Recorded in London on May 19, 2015)


Topics covered include:

1. Benefits of playing outdoors

2. How to persuade children to unplug and go outside

3. The right balance of technology in childhood

4. How Silicon Valley parents handle screen time with their own kids

5. Why so many successful entrepreneurs climbed trees as children

6. How Nature reduces racism and other forms of prejudice

7. Whether games like Minecraft can ever rival the natural world

8. Differences (and similarities) between urban and rural children


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School’s out…side

When I speak in public about Under Pressure, I often ask the audience what they remember most vividly about their childhood. The answers usually break down along the same generational lines. Anyone over the age of about 25 remembers playing outdoors, usually with no adults around. The younger members of the audience recall being indoors, with grown-ups hovering nearby and often with an electronic screen involved. Over the last generation, the way children play has changed profoundly. So much play is now managed, supervised, organized, structured, benchmarked, expensive. It’s no longer enough for children to kick a ball around with their friends in the park or on the street, like Pelé, Maradona and Bobby Charlton did; they have to join a soccer team and play in uniforms with referees, coaches and parents screaming themselves hoarse on the sidelines. It’s not enough for them to mess around with twigs, weeds and dirt in the garden; they have to sit indoors with an electronic educational toy farm. So much play now occurs indoors in sterile environments created by risk-management consultants and bureaucrats from the health and safety department. Or it happens in the home, where anxious parents are desperate to insulate their kids from the perils of outside world. The net effect is that a lot of children nowadays lead very cloistered lives. They seldom go outdoors alone to explore, to take risks, to get lost or get into trouble, to play. Under Pressure examines the price we pay, starting with rising obesity, for treating children like battery hens, but it also investigates the solutions. One of the most promising is outdoor schooling, which has long been popular in Scandinavia but is now gaining ground around the world. The idea is simple: take kids out of the classroom and set them free in Nature. This works particularly well for pre-schools. For Under Pressure, I visited one outdoor pre-school, theSecret Gardenin Fife, Scotland, where three-year-olds spend their time in a forest negotiating harsh weather, open camp-fires and poisonous fungi. I saw more than one of the children break a piece of ice off the top of a muddy puddle and suck on it like a popsicle. In other words, outdoor pre-schools are the stuff of nightmares for a risk-averse society. But they work fabulously well. Sure, the children suffer the odd scratch or burn, but they arrive at kindergarten happier, more confident and less prone to illness and allergies than do their indoor peers. They are eager, motivated learners. They also have a strong feel for the natural world, which is essential if we’re going to save the environment. I’m writing about this now because Canada’s first outdoor pre-school is about to open. It’s set in 77 hectares of woodland on the outskirts of the capital, Ottawa, and is called theCarp Ridge Forest Preschool. As a Canadian myself, I’ll be interested to see how this experiment plays out. What about the notoriously cold winter in the Great White North? Well, the kids will play outdoors all year round, but the organizers are not extremists. When the thermometer dips below 10C, the children will move indoors. My feeling is that the kids could probably carry on playing happily at even colder temperatures but you have to draw the line somewhere. And you have to think of the teachers’ comfort too.

Slow camping

There is nothing slower than camping. We have just returned from three nights at theResurgence Summer Campwhich was held near Malvern, Worcestershire in England. I spoke on the first morning and then the rest of the time we slipped into festival-goer mode. It was a joy waking up to the sound of birds singing instead of the trill of the mobile phone or that ping from the email inbox. The site was set by a river and surrounded by trees, and the sun shone constantly. The best part was watching our children spend the whole day, and some of the night, running around playing with new friends. So much freedom. The composting toilets take a bit of getting used to, but nothing beats showering in the outdoors. We’ve got the camping bug now and are already planning our next trip.

Slow space

I’m in Toronto for a three-day conference called IdeaCity. It’s an amazing collision of ideas and dreams. One of the comments that has struck me most came from a physicist. He explained that 75% of the energy in the universe comes from empty space. This is wonderfully counter-intuitive. I may be stretching things here but it also seems like a nifty metaphor for the power that is unleashed by slowing down. When we become still, it looks like nothing is happening but in fact, beneath the surface, all kinds of extraordinary thinking and exploring is going on.

Travel slow

Hardly a week goes by these days without a journalist from somewhere in the world emailing me to talk about the rise of Slow Travel. And no wonder. The fast-forward approach to travel and tourism is taking a heavy toll. The environmental damage caused by our penchant for globetrotting in airplanes is well documented, but it is just the start. When we travel in roadrunner mode, we miss the small details that make each place thrilling and unique. We lose the joy of the journey. And at the end of it all, when every box on our To Do list has been checked, we return home even more exhausted than when we left. That is why Slow Travel is gaining ground. It’s about savouring the journey (traveling by train or barge or bicycle rather than crammed into a middle seat on an EasyJet flight); taking time to engage and learn about the local culture; finding moments to switch off and relax; showing an interest in the effect our visit has on the locals. The current issue of Newsweek Internationalhas a cover story devoted to Slow Travel and its title says it all: Slow is Beautiful.