Ryan Shorthouse: Why our children should learn to love the outdoor life

AFTER playing football in my back garden as a child, friends from my street would venture into the fields at the back of our houses to play hide and seek. As we grew older, we would explore the woods miles away, building dens and bike tracks. As important exams approached, I would walk by myself – through beautiful forests and next to glistening rivers – to ease nerves and think through complex issues.

That proximity to nature nurtured my creativity, created a strong love of physical adventure and challenge, and fostered a profound love of nature. So I find it deeply saddening that, as the years pass, fewer and fewer children are truly experiencing the countryside and developing skills that will make them happier and healthier.

For the past four decades, there has been a dramatic reduction in the amount of time children spend outdoors – whether it is walking to school or playing in their local area. The average distance children roam from their homes has decreased by 90 per cent since the 1970s.

The natural world is becoming increasingly alien: 80 per cent of eight-year-olds can identify characters from the Japanese cartoon Pokemon, whereas only 50 per cent can identify wildlife in their local area. This has prompted the director general of the National Trust this week to launch an initiative to find ways of fixing the problem of young people "increasingly disconnected from the fabric of the country".

Worryingly, this alienation from the countryside is more common for children from deprived backgrounds. A study by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment found that the poorer you are, the less likely you are to have access to green space: if you are in the 20 per cent most deprived income bracket you are five times less likely than the 20 per cent most affluent families to have access to countryside.

The unequal access to the countryside is caused primarily by two trends. The first is that the cost of housing in rural areas is out of reach for many on low incomes – the gap between the lowest quartile of earnings and the lowest quartile of house prices is higher in the countryside than in urban areas. Affluent, young professionals wanting to move from the city to start a new family in "commuter villages" – pushing up demand with low supply – have puffed up prices. The poorest are thus more likely to live in deprived inner city areas, the furthest possible distance from natural areas. Secondly, families in more deprived areas are less likely to have the disposable income to be able to travel – whether by car, train or bike – to the countryside.

Those in the poorest neighbourhoods are therefore more dependent on the spaces near to where they live. Not only will this be less likely to be green, it will also tend to be of poorer quality and more dangerous – because traffic is more of a risk in deprived neighbourhoods and severe crime a more frightening prospect. So less than one per cent of people living in social housing reported using green space. Little wonder that children from the poorest homes seem to spend more time indoors than their middle-class counterparts: parks in deprived neighbourhoods are visited less regularly and a National Consumer Council study found that at every time during the week, 9-13 year olds are more likely to be on the TV or in front of the computer.

A growing body of evidence has shown the clear health and educational benefits of having access to the countryside. Dr Peter Kahn from Washington University, in his book The Human Relationship with Nature, cites more than 100 stories which show stress reduced in people who have more contact with the countryside. Richard Louv, the author of Last Child in the Woods, highlights studies where children's cognitive abilities are improved and symptoms of ADHD are reduced when they are exposed to nature. Louv also mentions studies that demonstrate that lower crime rates and greater social capital are associated with access to good-quality green spaces.

Children's inequitable access to quality green space is exacerbating health and educational inequalities.

Middle-class parents, as they always do, have recognised what is in the best interests of their children and are able to locate themselves near the best green spaces, normally in the middle of the countryside. Let's find ways of ensuring deprived children can access such beautiful and important spaces.

Ryan Shorthouse is spokesman for Bright Blue, which campaigns for progressive policies from the Conservative Party, and a researcher at the Social Market Foundation.

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