The first of what will probably be many articles on this theme, this was published in Outdoor Photography in early 2009. © Niall Benvie 2009.
Let’s face it: for many children, nature is a hard sell. Not necessarily the furry animal side of it but the cold, wet, sweat, dirt and boredom that go with experiencing it at first hand; the sort things that you don’t get when, say, looking at nature on a computer screen. In his book, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder”, Richard Louv famously cites a young boy who, when asked where he enjoyed playing best replied, “Indoors – because that’s where the electrical outlets are.”
Those of us who believe that separating children from Mother Nature is bad for both should think twice before laying all the blame at the door of the computer and game console peddlers. Play expert Tim Gill argues in “No Fear: Growing up in a Risk Averse Society,” that one of the reasons the virtual world holds so much appeal to youngsters is that they experience freedoms there that are too often denied them in the physical world. In a society obsessed with real or imagined threats to our children, the “domain of childhood” in the UK has shrunk dramatically over two or three generations and with it, opportunities for children to learn to asses and manage risk for themselves. In trying to protect our children from any harm that might ever befall them we are in danger of fostering a generation of infantilised adults lacking the resilience and nouse to handle whatever life throws at them. I know: I‘m as guilty as the next concerned parent.
I believe that nature photography can provide a bridge between real and cyber worlds – a way of getting children “out there” while appealing to their desire to communicate through electronic media. I’ve seen this in action in Estonia where my friend and colleague Jaanus Järva teaches a photography class to teenagers for whom the process provides a great reason for being outdoors. I think that a number of these youngsters are what Harvard Professor Howard Gardner in his theory of multiple intelligence terms, “nature smart” – that is, they have an unforced affinity with and curiosity about the natural world and would be drawn to the outdoors even without photography to channel their interest. Nature is a soft sell to those of us with brains wired this way. Attention needs to be focused on the much larger cohort of children who, with a little encouragement and guidance, can have an abiding interest in the natural world ignited by meeting it through a camera. A few might be turned on by aesthetics but for the rest, the appeal is to other instincts: exploration; collection; competition; ownership of something unique. Once hooked on “nailing the shot”, the discomfort and boredom that may have to be endured to get it is no longer such a big deal. Outdoor education for its own improving sake, in contrast, is doomed to fail if, in the child’s mind, there is no objective beyond being educated about the outdoors.
In late 2007, the Irish sound artist, Cat Lee-Marr and I set up Rewilding Childhood, a media project constituted as a not-for-profit company dedicated to the production of images and audio material about children and nature. As well as servicing the project’s own objectives we are also creating documentary and conceptual material for use by organisations and individuals trying to re-establish contact between children and wild nature.
An important content-building part of the project is “100 Ways”. Acknowledging that it takes one hundred different ways to get one hundred different children hooked on the outdoors, we are inviting anyone involved in cultivating children to contribute their own great ideas for getting them outside and having fun. Photography clearly works for some older children; crude bribery (hot chocolate, ice cream etc.) is usually effective with younger ones. We want to grow the Rewilding Childhood website into the first port of call for anyone with an interest in these issues and need to collect and share your good ideas in order to do so. We also want to hear about the part nature played in your childhood and how that has informed your attitude to the environment in adult life.
Rewilding Childhood is a media project, not a programme of activities. We record, reflect, re-present and report. Nevertheless, I feel very positive about the role photography itself can play in re-establishing the link between the natural and human spheres – for children and adults. Photography, necessarily, engages the photographer with the subject, especially if it is viewed as something other than mere “subject matter”. Engagement is the first step along the road to caring about something. This sort of caring stems from first-hand knowledge rather than emotional manipulation by mediators with their own agendas. First hand knowledge lends authority to your public discourse about the subject – be that through pictures or words – and for children in particular, knowledge gained through experience builds self-esteem.
At a time of unprecedented environmental upheaval (and for once in history, that can be said with justification) it seems to me that the need to reflect on our abusive relationship with Mother Nature is greater than ever. And the best place to do that is where we stand shoulder to shoulder with her. She hasn’t given up on us yet.