Last night I went to a preview screening of the film Project Wild Thing, in our local community centre, as its maker, David Bond, is a local. This is an ongoing project, with a network, pledges, lobbying, apps, advertising and more, as well as the feature-length film. It aims to reconnect children to nature, which is an aim I’m 100% behind. The main premise of the film is David’s own enquiry into why his own children, and their peers, spend so much time glued to screens and less time than their forebears outdoors roaming in nature. I found it very funny (David is very funny and so are his kids). I also felt it to be very intimate, not just because of his family as the starting point but also because it’s filmed a lot in my neighbourhood, and he interviews people I know or admire such as Jay Griffiths.
David’s main premise is that he has given himself the job title of Marketing Director for Nature and he is on a quest to make nature more attractive to kids. So he talks to branding experts and involves creatives (who normally charge £1,000 a day – which made me wince – no wonder Shoreditch is looking so glam these days) in the challenge. This works quite well as a ruse that you see as both ironically over-reaching and sweetly optimistic.
However, there is a challenge to this from a commentator within the film, who suggests that branding or marketing nature is impossible because it defies definition, because nature is us, because it’s everything. There was also a challenge from the audience in discussion afterwards that if such a campaign is to work, as we are dealing with such a significant crisis in childhood, it needs to be much more political.
I think the film is a great provoker of discussion, by being funny and warm. It’s also convincing. But then it’s hard to disagree with an argument that children should spend more time in a milieu they have long been culturally associated with. Also, personally, I’m long converted so I hear the preaching but also tend to critique it. I believe the challenge is an ecological one – we need to understand and change an entire system of effects on children. In the name of love and protection, we have allowed these effects to damage and suppress children. I can see the appeal of campaign tactics such as pledges by adults to model behaviour by swapping screen time for wild time. However, I question the impact this will have if, for example, screen time is only reduced a little and still the majority of screen time is spent watching violent, consumerist or passive content. Digital is not the problem, some of the culture it purveys is. Also, much of children’s time is spent at school, and with current reforms in English schools, this will increasingly suppress children’s autonomy, imagination and mobility. In the discussion I mentioned the Too Much Too Soon campaign which is resisting the formalisation of schooling for early years. At the end of the session, David Bond said the project would be lobbying for ‘green time’ in schools, which is to be applauded. It may help in challenging the phenomenon of underusing school gardens and felling trees in school grounds, to replace them with buildings and concrete sports facilities. However, again, this may not be enough to address the fundamental cultural issues in formal test-oriented and competitive schooling.
I want this to work but think that a combination of ‘quick win’ campaigns and slower systematic change is needed. So, I’ve had a bit of a think about the system of what effects children and come up with this grid, below and bigger on this link. (I should say the problems can be very different for children in conflict-ridden and poor countries, although these problems are arising in aspirational developing countries such as India and China.). I’ve also explained a bit more background to this thinking in this presentation, prepared for an event on these themes called We Are Where, organised by Cambridge Curiosity and Imagination.
The colour-coding: Pink to blue = the more known and pragmatic factors. Blue to green is the more insidious and foundational factors. Yellow is the four key problems.