Patrick Barkham on raising a wild child

‘She catches feral pigeons with her bare hands.’

Sophie Yeo
Sophie Yeo

Patrick Barkham, a natural history writer, released Wild Child last week. The book is partly the tale of life with his own children, particularly his nature-loving daughter Esme, and partly a meditation on why children need a close relationship with the natural world. Inkcap interviewed Barkham about how to bring up a wild child.

Q. Why do you think it’s important to immerse children in nature?

A. Humankind’s relationship with nature is in crisis. It’s in crisis because we’re more disconnected from nature than ever before, and we live more urban lives, more indoor lives, than ever before. If we’re going to save the planet and save ourselves, we need future generations to grow up with a greater sensitivity towards nature and a greater appreciation of what it does for us. Also, children need to grow up more involved with nature, simply because it’s so beneficial for them both in terms of physical and mental health.

Do you think that children who grow up in contact with nature are more likely to want to become conservationists or protect nature as adults?

I do think most teenagers turn away from nature. It’s seen as very uncool among your peer group, and that’s fine and that’s a normal part of growing up. But I do think, if you’ve been exposed to enough nature in the first 10 years of your life, you are going to grow up with a basic natural literacy and the basic appreciation for other species that will be a great gift – a great source of enjoyment and pleasure, but also a source of knowledge. We don’t need to become conservationists, but we all need to live much more lightly on the planet and much more gently with other creatures. I think we can only do that if we grow up with direct experience with nature.

There’s a real danger that nature just becomes something we appreciate via a brilliant David Attenborough documentary on telly. Of course, we can care for tigers and lions and elephants that we never meet, but I don’t think we’re ever likely to live better in tune with other species unless we’ve been exposed to it directly – unless we put our hands in mud and get to hold a frog and get to see a grass snake. These things can seem trivial but I think they add up to this huge appreciation for nature and a way of living more lightly on the planet.

Esme with a snake. Credit: Patrick Barkham

Your daughter, Esme, seems to spend much of the book picking up and prodding things. I quite like the image of her with the Hawkmoth in her hair…

I’ve got twin girls, who are now eight, and a six year old boy. The girls are non-identical twins so they look very different, but they’re so different in personality too. Not everyone is a nature nut, and Millie loves arts and crafts, reading and being indoors, whereas Esme, since she was six months old, was picking up soil and putting it in her mouth. She’s always been interested in other creatures, and she is always seeking to catch things, hunt things. It is tremendous to be able to facilitate that. I try not to lead it; I try to let them decide how they want to interact with nature and follow them.

Obviously, there’s been a few lessons along the way, prodding Esme into not harming a butterfly which she captures. This sounds really eccentric, but she likes to go down to the river and catch feral pigeons with her bare hands, which she holds for a few minutes and then she lets go again. With the first one she caught, it was quite hard to persuade her that she couldn’t keep it as a pet.

Esme catching a feral pigeon. Credit: Patrick Barkham

Obviously you know quite a lot about nature yourself. I was wondering, if parents read your book and see all the benefits that you’re talking about, but they have not been brought up with nature – they don’t know how to go pond-dipping or how to hatch butterflies – how do you think those parents should go about instilling an enthusiasm for nature in their kids?

Wild Child is definitely a book for parents, and I hope it really inspires more parents who perhaps haven’t involved nature in their children’s lives much to to involve it a bit more, but I certainly don’t want to rebuke parents either. I think the biggest obstacle is this parental feeling that “I’m not a nature expert, I think my children are just going to be bored if I take them out to the woods,” and I just stress that you absolutely don’t have to be an expert in nature to give your children the gift of nature.

The most powerful thing for a child is to be able to experience nature for themselves and to choose their own adventure. I think if we, as parents, can just facilitate our children spending more time in nature – so simply taking them to a local green space – and give our children the opportunity to play there, that’s the starting point. This is something going on in lockdown a lot; everyone is discovering their local neighborhood much more. Children don’t get bored by stuff. They love returning to a favorite place and they soon develop bonds with a place, no matter how scruffy or unattractive it may be. As you’re hanging out in nature, stuff happens around you.

You write quite a lot about how children’s freedom to roam has been increasingly restricted over the decades. Is something that parents and society should try to undo and maybe let go a bit, even if they feel scared, or if these restrictions are a natural reaction to how society is now?

There isn’t an easy answer. We can’t go back to the ‘50s – and the ‘50s weren’t all a golden era. Children had much more freedom, but they weren’t as safe as they are today. We’ve created this incredibly safe environment for our children by not letting them out. The sociologist Mayer Hillman really opened my eyes to this, because he pointed out that we’ve prioritised the rights of adult car drivers over the rights of the most vulnerable group in society – children – in terms of roads and traffic. Instead of removing the danger from our roads, we’ve removed our children from danger.

How do we reverse that? I think the lockdown is really showing us how. Me and my kids have been out and about so much more during lockdown simply because our roads, which are normally busy and dangerous, are wonderfully quiet. I do think in cities, this is a doable thing, that we could reclaim our streets from cars. I don’t see why we couldn’t have car-free days, once a month. Obviously key workers will have to drive, but the rest of us could renounce our car use for a day and the streets could be returned to children.

A day at the beach. Credit: Patrick Barkham

I do think, as well, there is this fear of stranger danger, and this idea that you’re a bad parent if you’re not keeping an eye on your children every hour of every day. Somehow we need to get away from that. I think the answer there is that, as soon as there is a critical mass of children out and about, your children are much safer again, I wouldn’t send my eight-year-olds out alone into our village at the moment, because they’d be the only children out there. But if I knew that every other parent was sending their child out alone, I’d be much happier about it. Children are like house sparrows: they’re communal animals and there’s safety in numbers. We somehow have to get those numbers back and give children that gift of freedom in the open air once again.

A month or so ago, David Lammy received quite a lot of derision on Twitter when he incorrectly identified a blue tit as a goldfinch. Do you think it’s important for children to learn identification skills, or do you think it’s enough to simply appreciate what they see?

I don’t think we should deride anyone, no matter how grown up or whether they’re a politician or not, for not having knowledge. That said, I do think it’s important to learn about things and it’s useful, too. If we can name something, it deepens our understanding of the world. I do think nature knowledge is useful and important, but I don’t think it’s the be all and end all. You could be an artist and paint the most wonderful picture of a goldfinch without knowing what it was; you could capture the spirit of it in a poem without knowing its name. But names often tell us a lot about something, and are a gateway into learning more about it and communicating what you’ve seen to other people, so I’d never say the acquisition of knowledge is not worth doing.

Your book deals mainly with early childhood. Do you think it’s possible, or desirable, to integrate the outdoors learning you describe into teenagers’ education or sixth form?

There’s been a lot of debate recently about a natural history GCSE. Some people think this is wonderful, but other conservationists don’t agree with it and think it’s not really solving the problem by making it an academic subject. I think it would be useful to have more environmental science in formal learning, and for the national curriculum to have more space in it for an understanding of Earth systems, and an understanding of our complete dependence upon not just a habitable climate but also other species for the continuation of human civilization.

But I do also believe that we could do more with simply moving conventional lessons outdoors. It would need funding, primarily funding to train teachers, but I don’t see why we couldn’t have an hour of lessons outdoors, every day, for every child from nought to 18. Actually, in the post-coronavirus world, outdoor schooling has already been seen as a potential way of schooling – with social distancing and less risk of the virus being transmitted between pupils. It’s a very relevant question for our current times, but I do appreciate that sounds quite wacky.

There are always going to be isolated examples where people have gone out of their way to help underserved communities. But do you think that, where there are issues of pollution and a lack of green space in cities, that there are ways to bring this into those kinds of schools?

Our current predicament is really bringing home the importance of urban green space. I really think that urban green space needs to be reconceived as a human right. Given the positive impact of high-quality green space on our mental and physical health, which is proven by literally hundreds of very different kinds of scientific studies, we should all be able to access green space. The lockdown has really brought home that we can’t – it has shown that less affluent communities have far less access.

National Parks were drawn up during the depths of the Second World War, and I really think, as part of our post-corona rebuilding of society, urban green parks for all should be a cornerstone.  It would be brilliant if the government could take that on, because it certainly is the case that we are not all in this together in terms of this coronavirus crisis, and we’re not all being affected by it equally, because those of us without access to green space are in a much worse situation. I don’t see why that wouldn’t be universally popular, the kind of policy that would appeal to both left and right.

I guess what your question points towards is this perception that issues of green space and nature are a middle class concern. I agree that they tend only to be talked about by people like myself – I’m middle class and I don’t have to worry every day about putting food on my table, so I’m absolutely not ever going to berate a parent who is unable to deliver green space for their child, because they’re just struggling to put food on the table. But this is where the government has to step in and help, because we’re one of the most affluent countries in the world and there’s just no excuse for the kind of poverty that means that our children can’t have clean air and green space that is so crucial to all our mental and physical well-being.

You already know which major bookstores are selling Wild Child. You could also consider supporting your local independent bookshop: Patrick Barkham recommends Wild Sounds and The Book Hive; Inkcap loves Cogito Books, which will locate any book you request.

Sophie Yeo

Sophie Yeo is a writer based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. She is the founder and editor of Inkcap Journal.


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