When play is a political issue

Cornish rock pools junior says David Cameron is his arch-enemy. He says David Cameron doesn’t like nature and he just can’t understand it. Attributing everything to one person may not be right, but I can see where he’s coming from.

Like most kids his age, Cornish rock pools junior loves nothing better than running wild in the woods and clambering between rock pools. He’s a den-building, dam-making, butterfly-chasing, wave-splashing kind of child – is there any other kind? You could argue that his fierce love of nature is down to my influence, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. He’s very sure of his own mind.

In the last few years in our small coastal town we’ve lost our community bus, seen library opening hours slashed and lost access to some of the few public green spaces. Right now, diggers are tearing up the playground and park at the end of our road in order to build houses. Another application is being discussed to build on one of the two remaining public green spaces.

In adult terms, it’s a typical case of short term thinking: the benefits of natural spaces for fitness, health, flood protection, etc, are greater than the gains from their destruction, but these things aren’t considered important.

In child terms it’s heartbreaking. I’m not the only parent mopping up tears.

Playing in natural spaces is vital for children’s physical and mental health. Children learn best by doing, by experiencing, by exploring, by interacting freely with others. And if they connect with their natural environment as children, they grow up to care more deeply about looking after nature.

We’re losing these spaces at an alarming rate. At least we still have the beaches. When I take kids out on the beach, they soon begin to take a keen interest in marine litter, shark conservation, water pollution and more, because they care about the beach and they want to protect it. Cornish rock pools junior spends most of his time out and about and cares deeply about all these things, but many don’t have these opportunities.

Looe Marine Conservation Group rockpool ramble - Cornish Rock Pools
Looe Marine Conservation Group rockpool ramble

Children’s freedom to play is being squeezed in many ways. It’s not just their access to wild spaces, it’s their time that’s under pressure. In schools, they’re starting academics earlier, being tested earlier, being given more homework. Despite teachers’ best efforts and instincts, this can inevitably result in less importance being placed on experiences and trips, and less free time for play in or out of school. Then there are roads and other dangers which stop parents letting children out. Even here, in a seaside community, there are children who rarely or never go to the beach.

I’ve taken enough kids out on the shore to know there’s no lack of enthusiasm. Nothing beats seeing your first starfish, holding a crab for the first time or catching a fish on your own. I often have to assure teachers and parents that the children’s loud squeals and ten-to-the-dozen chatter really are fine. In fact, they’re great. Children love having the freedom and responsibility to explore the rock pools. They get a thrill from finding and interacting with the wildlife. They engage, learn and retain that learning, and are often keen to talk about what they discovered when I meet them again the following year.

Rockpool ramble

Without a healthy natural world and healthy, creative kids, I can’t see we’re going far, but I don’t always agree with Cornish Rock Pools junior about how change should be achieved. I’ve explained that we should try to make clear arguments and present evidence to convince decision makers to protect nature – so CRP junior has written letters and shared his views, but the responses are bland and dismissive. He insists that sending a seagull air-force to poop on their heads is the best option. Custard bombs, trap doors, apple grenades and chocolate ball shooters have also been suggested.

We do agree on one thing though: we need to change the way decisions are made. It’s not right that the interests of children and nature are sidelined. We need to be smarter about how we work out costs and benefits. Parents, educators and the community all have a role in encouraging and supporting outdoor play, but we need a system that supports this instead of one that undermines it from every angle. Here’s hoping…

Shelter Made from Marine Litter
Shelter Made from Marine Litter
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6 thoughts on “When play is a political issue”

  1. I agree with all you have to say, and this government are shameful in the way they are approaching natural spaces. Yesterday Defra published their departmental plan…all of the focus is on economic benefit. It would seem that our natural spaces are only beneficial if they can drive a profit. I despair. People like you must continue your fabulous work and teach children the amazing intrinsic value of our environment. Keep up the great work.

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  2. Thank you – yes I’ll keep doing all I can both because it matters and because it’s fun. I love being ‘the rockpool lady’ to so many kids (I think they call me that in a positive sense! :D) You can’t put an absolute value on nature, I agree, and like I say, the more time you spend in natural environments, the greater the value you’re likely to put on them. However, I think there is some benefit in internalising the at least the quantifiable costs of degrading the environment. If it’s done realistically and thoroughly, then putting a monetary value on flood prevention, health costs, etc, of losing natural spaces could transform decision making in a positive way. Like you, though, I have major doubts about the ability of the government to put this in place in any more than a cursory way. I’ll take a look at the DEFRA plan, but my first thought is that unless it’s Treasury-led and done with complete commitment to a transformation then it may be counterproductive. Cornish Rock Pools junior is keeping a nature diary and wants to send copies to Cameron and other decision makers – he hopes that if they see how wonderful nature is, that they’ll want to save it.

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  3. I sympathise with your son, I find it hard enough as an adult to accept that our MPs and government don’t seem to see the intrinsic value in nature. I was furious to see a Conservative MP on Question Time recently making a dismissive comment along of the lines of it being ridiculous to have to consider ‘every newt or bird’ when looking at potential sites for building, though I suspect his comment sums up the attitude of a disappointing amount of people. You’re absolutely right, of course, emotive arguments will not create positive change, it’s necessary to present solid data and show that nature can be good for our well being and of course the precious economy. Here’s hoping, and in the meantime glad that there are so many people working to educate and inspire children and adults with nature and the outdoors (I have found Cornish Rockpools extremely helpful in my own nature explorations!).

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    1. Thank you for your lovely comments, Kay. I’ll show my son the likes and comments so he can see that lots of people care about nature as much as he does. It’s great to hear that you find my site useful – I’m looking forward to seeing what I find on this year’s low tides and sharing it here.

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  4. Excellent post – So agree! Sad thing is that neither play, physical activity nor creativity are measurable entities and we know the government are so obsessed with quoting vote-wining stats they’re not interested in anything that won’t fit into one! 😉 x

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    1. Couldn’t agree more, Ross. The government drive to turn learning into a series of defined and measured steps that everyone must achieve at a defined time in a defined order suggests that they’ve never met a real child.

      Learning to be a happy and productive member of society is far more important than rapidly forgotten rote learning for tests. It’s one of the reasons I home educate my son, but there many great schools and teachers out there – it’s the system that’s crazy.

      We’ll keep campaigning to protect play spaces and our marine environment. I like to think that many of the kids who come out on the shore and hold a starfish for the first time, will keep that sense of wonder for the rest of their lives and will also stand up to protect the things that matter.

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