Last of the pond-dippers - Nick Baker

Nick Baker is a naturalist, broadcaster and writer. In this article he explores the relationship between children and nature in the modern world, and how we can change things for the better.

Nets are dipping into the duckweed; in a frenzy of sludge and water, sleeves are getting soggy, knees muddied and every now and then a glee-filled smile reveals another discovery: a water beetle, dragonfly nymph or tadpole.

It’s hard to imagine a life without the simple pleasure of pond dipping; it’s even harder to imagine, among the smiles and laughter, that this is one of the most important lessons in life. And, to all our detriment, it’s getting rarer.

A vanishing act

Outdoor exploration of nature is vanishing from the mainstream, and unstructured play is nearly extinct. With it we lose not only a sense of ourselves but also a sense of place in the grand scheme of things. Mounting evidence suggests that many childhood behavioural ‘disorders’ are linked to this absence of time in nature. Why is it happening?

I can only relate it to my own experience; when I was ten I was going badger watching nearly every sticklebacks from nearby streams, and identified the moths at my window. Part of me wonders if I had a privileged childhood. A rural one, certainly, with woods and fields nearby.

Where did the line break?

You’ll never forget your first badger – just as you’ll never remember your highest score on a computer game

Now I have a child of my own, I’m trying to understand why things changed. If these life skills are passed on as a kind of oral tradition, where did the line break? Maybe my childhood memories are not so reliable after all. Maybe I’m a dying breed, and that the rot set in a long time ago. Yet others who grew up in the 1970s and 80s did the same kinds of things – even in towns. So why are today’s 10 year olds not doing the same?  

For the PlayStation generation it’s a world of pace and instant gratification: virtual worlds at their fingertips, multi- channels of TV on demand 24/7, and all this within a litigious society where health and safety fears give the sticky kiss of death to any freedom of thought and spontaneity. Many blame the media-exploded perception of stranger danger and, of course, busier roads and developments for cutting off, isolating or simply building on opportunities. Overpopulation could be yet another problem heaped on the issue.

The commodification of nature

Even nature itself has become a commodity. Many believe they cannot experience it unless they are in a nature reserve, have the right pair of binoculars, or are wearing the correctly endorsed clothes. I watched a stoat last year playing under a bird hide full of people complaining that nothing was going down! So often nature is seen as something to travel to – not something we are immersed in all the time and dependent upon for our physical, emotional and spiritual health.

Maybe the natural world is not that exciting. Maybe it simply cannot compete with the instantaneous immersion of a games console or the internet. I admit these bright lights can be dazzling but I also believe that nature is truly exciting; just watch a butterfly punch its way out of its chrysalis, a damselfly nymph ruining the life of a water flea.

Inspiring the next generation

So I conclude that the magic is not being passed on in a way that relates to modern lifestyles. But this can change. The key (and it’s a role that The Wildlife Trusts, other organizations and the Government should take very seriously) is about opportunity – we need to create more.

Back to the pond now; because these enthusiastic, net-wielding youngsters are tomorrow’s politicians, business leaders and conservationists. And for them to look after the world’s wild places they first have to know them. Somehow we have to infiltrate their lives and give them a taste of the real world’s excitement and adventure. We all have the potential to be mentors of a kind – we are The Wildlife Trusts, and if anyone has the resources and the will to take nature deficiency seriously then we can. It’s time that educating and informing the young became more than a feelgood activity is tacked onto the edges. It is at the heart of our health as a species – and the future of the world we live in.

You’ll never forget your first badger – just as you’ll never remember your highest score on a computer game – no matter how important it seemed at the time

- Nick Baker, September 2009 (This article first appeared in Natural World, The Wildlife Trusts' UK-wide membership magazine)