The benefits of being a wild child

We turned to nature for the physical health benefits – but never expected the mental health ones.

My youngest child was six months old when, after a terrifying dash to A&E, he was diagnosed with multiple severe food allergies. It was an event which had a big impact on our everyday lives – affecting where and how we shop for food, where we sent him to nursery, how we organise playdates and even where we go on holiday.

And of course we couldn’t help wondering why. Why was it that, for him, the most benign of household ingredients were potentially deadly?

One of the most common explanations for why a growing number of children are developing allergies is the ‘hygiene theory’. The idea that our modern lives are too clean. That we’re not exposed in infancy to enough bacteria to set up our immune systems properly. The myth that kids who grow up on farms don’t develop allergies does seem to be true.

Looking around our chaos-strewn home, it was hard to believe our house could ever be described as too tidy, too clean. But maybe, somehow, it was. And even though the causes of allergies are likely to be far more complex than just this, we decided to set about re-wilding our lives.

Out went the alcohol hand gel and in came the probiotics and kefir.  We swapped out harsh cleaning products and replaced them with plant-based alternatives.  And more than anything, we embraced outdoor play like never before.  Muddy wellies and waterproofs now adorned our doorstep, and the oldest child joined Sussex Wildlife Trust’s ‘Nature Tots’ forest school sessions. We never looked back.

These days, both our kids do forest school. And when we’re on an outdoorsy family adventure, we watch them climb trees with the agility of monkeys, and splash in puddles like puppies. The three year old will bound around in long grass and then correctly identify a dock leaf when he’s inevitably stung by nettles. He can spot hazelnuts, acorns, pine cones and more. The six year identifies elder, rowan, oak, sycamore and a host of wildflowers. She’s correct more often than I am.

And of course, #30DaysWild is an annual fixture for our family. This year we’ve made some scrummy elderflower cordial, journey sticks and a rainbow of scavenged nature treats. We’ve put up bat and bird boxes and planted trees. We’ve spotted spittle bugs, caterpillars and bees, and followed the orchestral hums emanating from meadow grass to find grasshoppers and crickets.

But it’s the impact on our well-being which is most striking. When they’re out in the woods, skipping past foxgloves, clambering over branches and trailing sticks behind them, the kids are content, calm and playful. Sibling rivalry is (mostly!) left at home. A fallen tree can be a bus, a pirate ship, a submarine under invasion from octopus-faced aliens. Its upturned roots are a secret base or a camp. Sticks are swords, broomsticks and wands.  For them, it’s magical; for me, it’s as easy as parenting gets.

In her brilliant book Wilding, Isabella Tree talks about why nature is so good for our well-being. She cites research which shows that the natural environment – as opposed to the screens, flashes and beeps of the modern world – holds our brains in ‘soft fascination’ that demands little effort and allows space for reflection and mental recovery. It creates a state of relaxed alertness which is close to what Buddhists call kinetic meditation or mindfulness.

And it’s not just that. There’s an idea that kids who engage in ‘risky’ outdoor play – climbing trees, learning to use tools like wood saws etc – might gain skills which will help them face future challenges with more resilience. It’s really intriguing, and is being investigated by a partnership between psychologists at the University of Sussex and the Sussex Wildlife Trust.  I took my youngest along to a group research session where psychologists observed three, four and five year olds playing outdoors on a rope swing, a plank bridge, in a muddy puddle and using a wood saw. Intermittently the research team would take saliva samples to check for tell-tale hormone levels. The findings aren’t ready yet, but it’ll be fascinating to see what they conclude.  

And in the madness of lockdown, playing in nature has been a tonic. While the kids couldn’t see their best friends face-to-face, they could still, at least, be unleashed across a field and into the woods. They could still excitedly dam a woodland stream with gathered sticks, launch themselves into muddy puddles and defend their favourite fallen tree from those pesky octopus-faced alien invaders.  And as long as no-one was looking… so could I.

This blog was first published by the Wildlife Trusts as part of their #30DaysWild campaign.

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