How to help your children fall in love with the wild world and discover the joys of neighbourhood nature

PUBLISHED: 12:15 22 May 2020 | UPDATED: 13:10 22 May 2020

Patrick Barkham with his children  Picture: Marcus Garrett

Patrick Barkham with his children Picture: Marcus Garrett

©Marcus Garrett. Written Permission Only.

Norfolk nature writer Patrick Barkham’s new book on helping children grow up happy, healthy and in tune with the natural world is perfect for pandemic times.

Wild Child by Patrick BarkhamWild Child by Patrick Barkham

Almost as soon as his twin girls were born Patrick Barkham began writing Wild Child. It is the story of the relationship between children and nature – unfolding alongside the seasons.

Milly and Esme are now eight, little brother Ted is six, and the book they inspired was published this month.

“Like any other children, my children love free play in the natural world – drawing on the sand or collecting stones and shells on the beach, making dens in the woods, messing about by the river,” said Patrick. “Wild Child tells the story of my experiences volunteering at the inspirational Dandelion forest school, which has sites in Aylsham and Norwich, and also my experiences as a parent of three young children.

“I hope it is a celebration of neighbourhood nature, and the joys we can all find in the ordinary other species around us whether we live in the countryside or the city.”

It was written before the coronavirus crisis, but is suddenly more relevant than ever as our local wild places, the parks and paths, woods and commons, have become so much more precious. Quiet roads, an intense focus on our immediate neighbourhood, acres of time for some, home-schooling for others, an increasing awareness of the health and happiness benefits of the natural world for everyone - Wild Child, Coming Home to Nature, is a book for our times.

Patrick wrote it, from his own experience as a father, for parents, grandparents, aunties, uncles, teachers . . . ‘Anyone with an interest in helping our children grow up healthier and happier and more in tune with nature.’

He and his wife Lisa are bringing their children up in Hoveton and he said: “I adore the space and peace of Norfolk. We live in Hoveton and we are five minutes from the magical mysteries of the Broadland waterways and 20 minutes from the beach.”

But Wild Child is equally lyrical about the wildernesses to be found in an old city cemetery or up a tree or in any of open spaces we are rediscovering and re-valuing. As the distance we can travel has reduced, now is the perfect time for a close-up appreciation of the wonder of streets and lanes lined with trees budding and blossoming, of skies alive with bees, birds and butterflies.

Patrick’s own children have been encouraged to explore and enjoy the natural world all their lives, but Patrick says they are all different in the ways they respond to the wildlife wonders on their doorstep.

“Having twins has been fascinating. One, Esme, is a real ‘wild child’ who loves running free, spotting birds and catching everything from grass snakes to butterflies (she lets them go again!) “Her sister, Milly, defines herself as an indoor person and enjoys arts and crafts. What I’ve learned though, is that very different children all respond to the natural world with the same instinctive joy and pleasure. Milly loves collecting shells, while Ted enjoys making things and outdoor carpentry.”

But how can people with less knowledge of the natural world help children appreciate and understand nature?

“As parents, we are so often made to feel like failures, and I’d hate the natural world to become one more thing that we feel obliged to provide for our children,” said Patrick.

“I was lucky enough to grow up near Reepham, in a lovely part of the Norfolk countryside, and I was fortunate to have a dad and a mum who both knew about nature and gently passed on their knowledge.”

“Try slipping a bit more wildness into your everyday lives – walk to school if you can, and look up at the birds. Or take your children to a wildish place and let them roam free and choose their own adventure – Bacton Woods, or the beach at Sea Palling or Whitlingham Lake. It doesn’t matter if you can’t name plants or animals (although you might want to learn alongside your children). If we can provide under-11s with hands-on natural experiences (we worry too much about ‘not touching’ nature) they will be more relaxed at home, they’ll sleep really well, and acquire a natural literacy that can last a lifetime. And they’ll care for our beautiful planet too.”

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And for when group activities are running again he suggests learning alongside your children, from enthusiasts and experts, through pond dipping, owl prowls and fungi forays. “Parents without nature knowledge are understandably intimidated by the natural world. So for beginners I’d recommend group activities – Norfolk Wildlife Trust runs loads of free events during school holidays, and so do the RSPB and the National Trust.”

Patrick’s previous books include The Butterfly Isles: A Summer in Search of Our Emperors and Admirals; Badgerlands: The Twilight World of Britain’s Most Enigmatic Animal; Coastlines: The Story of Our Shore; and Islander: A Journey Around Our Archipelago.

He is now working on his next two books – one in conjunction with a new television series about British nature and the other a biography of nature writer Roger Deakin, who lived at Mellis, near Diss. “Roger popularised wild swimming, has written beautifully about East Anglia and led a fascinating life,” said Patrick.

Wild Child, Coming Home to Nature, by Patrick Barkham, is published by Granta Books.

Patrick Barkham will be paying tribute to the one of the bright spots of life in lockdown in an online session called Discovering the joys of neighbourhood nature

which will be available from 3pm on Sunday May 24 at as part of Norwich City of Literature 2020 from the Norfolk and Norwich Festival and the National Centre for Writing. Join Patrick as he talks about our chance to forge newly intimate relationships with other species in our neighbourhood.

Close to home, close to nature

There are plenty of wildlife experiences you can have as a family right now. Although expert-led groups are on hold we recommend trying:

An insect safari in your garden, the local park or even a pavement, identifying as many as you can.

Use water, daisies, dropped rose petals and sprigs of herbs to leaves to create ‘potions’.

Take paper and crayons and make bark rubbings of trees.

Have a nature quiz – one person finds and identifies 10 different leaves or flowers (photograph rather than pick these if they are growing wild or in the park) and challenges the rest of the family to name them. Repeat daily until everyone knows all 10, adding extra as necessary.

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