PATRICK BARKHAM tells how to raise a wild child

The joy of raising a wild child! Straw bales instead of desks, tree climbing lessons… and not a tantrum to be seen. PATRICK BARKHAM tells how an unorthodox outdoor nursery school gave his brood an education we can ALL learn from

  • Author writes about his three children’s adventures at Dandelion Education
  • The family moved to Norwich, Norfolk, two months before the twins were born
  • Children are given a unique education at the nursery that is close to nature 

Even when it rains at Dandelion Education, which is completely off-grid, they are as dismissive of drizzle as ducklings. Inside-reared children can adapt, very quickly, to life outdoors.

During my year at Dandelion — near Aylsham, in Norfolk — I meet just one child out of 40 who complains that playing in the rain is a hardship.

When I started there, my own three children were five (the twins) and three, but at this outdoor nursery I can’t always tell who among them are five and who are three.

Many of the three-year-olds who attend four or five days a week seem more mature than five-year-olds who visit just once a week.

Given much more freedom and responsibility, small children quickly learn to take care of themselves and make their own decisions. Play is very self-directed; appeals to authority are rare; and a passive need for adults — or screens — to provide entertainment diminishes.

Author Patrick Barkham writes how his children have got involved with Dandelion Education near Aylsham, Norfolk. Pictured above are children at the nursery

The children are constantly busy, but in such a spacious environment that they are much calmer than those I see in conventional schools or nurseries. I never hear a teacher’s raised voice.

As Dandelion’s founders point out, children are less likely to fight when they are in open space than in a nursery full of other children. They are also less likely to squabble over a stick than over a plastic toy.

There is no plastic here — but for a while I don’t really notice the most astonishing absence of all: when a child cries, it’s a foreign sound.

There are fewer tears here than when I’m at home with my three for a day. Some days, there is barely a meltdown among 20 busy small persons.

But the most amazing thing I notice is Dandelion’s effect on me. At each day’s end, I am elated.

Part of this elation is spring, the lifting of the light, the creeping warmth, the leaves unfurling, the birdsong. Another part is learning new skills.

But the largest component is sheer physical pleasure, the glow I get from fresh air and action.

Afterwards, I am extremely physically tired and extremely mentally relaxed. I sleep for ten hours at night. So does my three-year-old son Ted: after a day at Dandelion, he falls asleep seconds after his head hits the pillow.

Ted is a wild child, as are our twins Esme and Milly. But it’s Esme in particular who has had an urgent appointment with the wild since she was very young.

She has dark eyes, a mane of brown hair and she roams our garden like a little lion. Nothing seems to escape her gaze.

From the moment she was plonked outside at six months old, Esme explored by popping soil into her mouth — yet never succumbed to any dirt-related sickness.

The nursery aims to give children a strong education in the outdoors. Pictured are children at the Dandelion nursery in Norfolk

By the time she was toddling, she would bend down every few steps and grab bits in her hands: soil, dry buds, old nuts, twigs, leaves. Milly showed no similar interest.

One day, when Esme was 20 months old, we heard a squawk. I said ‘Magpie’ and she corrected me. ‘Jay,’ she said. She was correct.

Milly, too, could soon name various wild species. Is this important? Yes. Learning about the particularity of things is a valuable principle, and children are adept at identifying.

Today, however, most children are less likely to identify different types of tree and more proficient at distinguishing brands of car or junk food.

One survey of three to five-year-olds found they learn brands well before they can read: 92 per cent could identify the arches of McDonald’s.

At three, Esme caught butterflies with her bare hands. She is seven now, and one of an endangered species.

A few of my generation, and more from preceding generations, were once wild children. But today the self-directed child, playing freely among other animals, plants and peers, belongs to a lost civilisation. And we have lost all this in just the blink of an eye.

Our children are growing up without green spaces and wild things. Our contact with species other than our own is lessening. Our time in nature is curtailed.

My generation of parents chauffeur our children to adult-supervised activities and institutionalise their play. We fear the opprobrium of fellow parents as much as we fear for our children’s safety.

Across the affluent world, outdoor teachers tell the same stories — of children wondering what mud is, or where milk comes from; of children who have never set foot on grass, never visited the seaside, or think a blue tit can kill them.

Two months before the birth of our twins, we moved into a small terraced house in Norwich. We chose it because it backed onto the green thicket of an overgrown cemetery.

Three-year-old Esme is pictured playing with bricks and mud at the outdoor nursery

During the girls’ first winter, I took them out regularly in our double buggy, to encourage them to sleep. These ‘sleep-walks’ along cemetery paths were where their wildness began.

No matter how raucous our babies before I took them out, they were at peace inside the cemetery.

There, we could lose ourselves in dells of holly, take wrong turnings through holm oaks and see great tits, robins, blackbirds, magpies, jays, squirrels, even muntjac deer.

By mid-April, every tree was exploding with joy. An avenue of limes danced with a million tiny green baubles. On wet spring days, snails trailed everywhere and black slugs devoured the delicate cream flowers of cow parsley.

New treasures were revealed with each trip; new activities evolved with the seasons.

One friend was a giant cedar: no matter how wild the weather, she kept us sheltered beneath her skirts. And there the ground was covered in a bouncy mat of old seeds from her decaying cones. It was a superb soft-play park.

There was no need for structured games or instruction. Mostly, we hung out; the girls in their world and me in mine.

Author Patrick Barkham has written a book about his experiences

But then we had our third child, Ted, and outgrew our tiny terrace. So, five years ago, we moved to an unmodernised chalet bungalow in the village of Hoveton, Norfolk, a short walk from open countryside.

Looking back, I still don’t know if this was the right decision. There is less wildlife in intensively farmed countryside than in cities. No child goes exploring alone, as I once did: if anything, country children — surrounded by fast roads and vast privately owned fields — are more likely to be trapped in their homes than city kids who live on 20mph roads with parks near by.

Beside a tiny Victorian school, a footpath leads to what looks like an overgrown garden. This is the headquarters of Dandelion Education and it is not picturesque. There are no beautiful trees, no lush wildflower meadows, no lovely woodland. But it’s idyllic.

There are several small wooden sheds, straw bales, pallets, tree stumps and a yurt between hedges of overgrown laurel and leylandii. Beneath sallows and field maple, the ground is covered mostly with mud, tussocky grass and anthills, continually trodden and retrodden by running pairs of wellies.

Woodsmoke drifts from a fire that dispatches its sweet scent over everything and everyone.

The children who make up this outdoor nursery are not immediately obvious. Peer over the fence and you might see a pack of three or four, moving through the undergrowth like a family of rooting pigs, albeit dressed in waterproof suits.

Whatever they are doing is head‑down intense and may involve sticks, foraging, fantasy and climbing trees.

The groups morph and change; children draw away to be alone, swinging on a rope, or dreamily engross themselves in this or that. Busy. But calm.

Not long ago, Dandelion was judged ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted, then won ‘nursery of the year’ at the Nursery World magazine awards. It is very well-run but by no means unique.

In the past 25 years, there has been a proliferation of outdoor nurseries and of concepts such as Forest school, rooted in a growing fear that the affluent world is failing its children.

Britain is now a world leader in producing fat, unhappy, anxious children. In England, one pupil in five in their final year of primary school is obese. One in eight under 19 has a mental health disorder.

Pictured is a garden nursery at the address where the Dandelion Nursery is registered. It has achieved an outstanding rating from Ofsted

Indeed, Unicef’s assessment of childhood well-being in rich countries put British children a miserable 16th — below Slovenia, Portugal and the Czech Republic.

Another unsettling trend is a steady decline in creativity since 1990, despite studies also showing increases in IQ. Declines in creativity were particularly marked among the under-nines.

The erosion of our children’s vivacity and joy is caused by a constellation of factors not fully understood by anyone. But there is a growing body of evidence pointing to one important cure.

More than 100 studies have supported the theory that immersion in green places enables fatigued, stressed and overstimulated minds to recharge. And the benefits are more pronounced the more wildlife-rich the natural space.

At three, Ted becomes the first of our family to attend Dandelion. We’d hoped to send his sisters there, too, but they are already in reception at the local school.

Like most children, Ted hates change. Yet, unexpectedly, he adores the first few weeks at Dandelion. He is visibly proud of himself, and each day brings home something he has made during supervised toolwork sessions, such as a piece of wood with ivy leaves or a conker nailed to it. Within weeks, Ted is astonishingly independent. He wants to do everything for himself: serve himself a drink when he’s thirsty, master the art of doing up buttons, pack his own bag. In the jargon, he is developing resilience.

I am the second member of my family to become part of Dandelion. The day I start as a volunteer, my first job is to help one of the teachers with the risk assessment.

Each day, a handful of children volunteer to put on fluorescent jackets, grab clipboards and inspect dangers around the site.

Pictured is Patrick Barkham’s book

What sounds like satire is a smart way to get children thinking about how they keep themselves safe. They have a sheet of A4 with drawings of things to check and then tick them off. A couple of the more serious three-year-olds join us. We start by testing that the ropes on the yurt are secure. It’s the only piece of indoors at Dandelion and the children can ask to go in at any time. But in my year there, we use it only once.

Next, we tour the site, pulling on the swinging ropes to check they are securely tied to the trees, and that the branches are sturdy and safe to climb. These trees also need checking for fungi.

Other Dandelions race around. One group is busy with a collection of pallets, which become a ship and then a spaceship. Another lot are hanging out in a hedge.

A place like this actually satisfies the most ardent collectors and gadget-lovers. There is loads of stuff: pots, pans, spoons, gutters for pouring water down, tyres and slices of wood that the children can rearrange.

An old limb of willow stuck into a tree stump is hung with paintbrushes, sieves and buckets. A construction area is equipped with trowels, spirit levels, tape measures and broken tiles and bricks.

Most purpose-built toys, I realise, strongly direct a child towards a limited range of uses. They are ‘closed’, whereas loose parts are ‘open’, to be turned into anything a child’s imagination can devise.

One afternoon, I catch a flit of movement near a bat box hammered to a sallow trunk and realise blue tits are nesting there. Alas, the chick nearest the entrance is dead, so I spend ten minutes jiggling with a stick to fish it out.

The chick is a pitiful thing, a few days away from fledging. I show it to Dandelion’s co-founders, Emma Harwood and Hayley Room.

‘It’ll give us a chance to talk about death,’ says Hayley brightly.

Emma points out the absence of decay in life today. ‘Children don’t even see vegetables rot, because vegetables just go in the bin.’

They don’t need to self-consciously discuss death with the children: outdoors, it is encountered naturally and can be experienced in an undistressing way.

When Emma and Hayley show the dead chick to the children, everyone talks with great interest, pondering its life and death, and the possible fate of the other chicks.

The Dandelions decide to bury it and compose funeral songs. These are not overly sentimental. ‘This is the way we bury the bird, bury the bird, bury the bird,’ they sing to the tune of Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush.

This absence of bother about death is another small revelation for me; children are not squeamish, mawkish or fearful about dead things, until we teach them to be.

Of the twins, Milly is a quicker reader. Esme feels the disparity with her sister and at times that makes her fraught.

We hope that a couple of days out of conventional school each week will take pressure off Esme. So, at five, she is the third member of our family to become a Dandelion.

Her primary school headmistress has agreed to ‘flexi-schooling’. This is where a child stays in their state school for most of the week but spends one or two days elsewhere.

I hadn’t fully registered that when I collect Esme from primary school, she is often hunched with tiredness and tense around the shoulders. But when I collect her after her first day at Dandelion, there is something different about her.

She looks liberated from stress and worry. She is exhilarated after a day outside. For a while, after the end of each Dandelion day, she is completely wild, as if something has been released in her.

By the end of the year, Esme has ‘caught up’ with Milly in every area of attainment.

The headmistress then agrees we can also send Milly to Dandelion once a week. But Milly loves school and is lukewarm about the idea.

Once she starts, she doesn’t hate the first few sessions but is far from enthusiastic. Are we putting dogma ahead of her happiness?

Milly is as comfortable as anyone in natural places, and the space and peace of outdoors spark her imagination. But she doesn’t love the natural world as Esme does.

It’s also undeniable that she likes the rules of her primary school, its predictability and its sociability. Even so, I want Milly to give Dandelion a go until Christmas.

I am clinging to the hope that she will grow to love it, though I’m sure all three children will turn away from nature in their teens.

But if we have spent enough time in green places in our younger years, I believe we are bequeathed a sensitivity and a basic wild literacy that can serve us well.

Not so long ago, a social psychologist showed a group of students an awe-inspiring image of mighty eucalyptus trees. He gave another group a view of office blocks. Then he staged an accident: he dropped a box of pens. The students who had been studying the trees proved more helpful and picked up more pens.

We behave better when we enter the world beyond ourselves.

I cannot think of anything more worthwhile than opening our eyes to the wonder of the planet.

We can express this respect in many ways, from what we eat to how we travel. But there are two essentials we cannot do without.

One is to spend time in nature ourselves, and the other is to grant our children that gift.

  • Wild Child, by Patrick Barkham, is published by Granta, £16.99.© Patrick Barkham 2020.

Source: Read Full Article