REVIEWED BY TRICIA GILBEY
Patrick Barkham (Granta Books: 2019)
It was wonderful to see Patrick Barkham interview Richard Mabey back in May. I am grateful to them both for raising the profile of the importance of the natural world as I believe that all our futures depend on us connecting with nature, and this is particularly so for our children.
Two highlights of my teaching career were to fundraise for and help build and plant a 6 x 4 metre pond and a rabbit-proof gardening area in the grounds of a tiny village school, and to win, with my parent helper and enthusiastic child gardeners, ‘The Greenfingers Challenge Award’. So, the subject of how children relate to nature, and what it can do for them is very close to my heart, and Patrick Barkham excels in Wild Child in both informing and entertaining the reader in equal measure.
Central to the narrative is the amazing Dandelion outdoor school, where every part of the children’s education happens outside, in the woods and sandy heathland north of Norwich. Patrick paints an engaging but truthful picture of the school through different seasons. Some children attend for their nursery education and others for longer, and thanks to an enlightened Headteacher, Patrick’s own three children have attended Dandelion alongside their more traditional education. Dandelion is run by Hayley and Emma, two inspiring women who believe that children can be helped to work things out for themselves if given the right experiences and guidance, something I wholeheartedly agree with.
Patrick Barkham doesn’t portray nature, or the school, as an idyll but instead he carefully shows a diverse range of children’s reactions to the natural world, saying there are ‘as many types of nature lover as there are music lovers.’ His own daughter, Millie, likes to collect things and put them in order. Esme is arguably the wildest child of the three, glorying in her outdoor experiences, pursuing anything that flies, hops, swims or crawls. Patrick has come to the conclusion that she is a hunter at heart. His youngest, Ted, likes funghi, dislikes getting his hands too muddy, but grows slowly more confident in Dandelion’s care.
Patrick Barkham weaves in many facts and figures from studies which show how experiences in nature educate children in many different ways they’d never have access to indoors. ‘The indoors’, he suggests, ‘is rather like a computer game…(where) we may minimise risk and maximise physical comfort but we also reduce serendipity and surprise’. Raising and exploring questions happens naturally outdoors. ‘“I had a lovely conversation with Hayden, sitting on some moss” Hayley tells me. “We started off talking about the moss and we ended up discussing death and time travel…”’. Hayley and Emma also use the more structured ‘Philosophy for Children’ which is a brilliant way to get children thinking about diverse topics and moral questions.
Wild Child is an important book which got me wondering about the revolution our planet might experience if a copy were to be read by every new parent, and if every child were allowed to be at least somewhat wild.