A two-year study has found that a sizeable minority of children have had no engagement with the great outdoors for at least a year, increasing concerns about childhood obesity and a growing disconnection with the countryside.
Around 12 % of children – many from poorer backgrounds – had no experience of visiting a forest, park or other natural open space in the last 12 months, the research by Natural England found.
But children with the easiest access to parks, playgrounds or the countryside, including those in the South West, were the most likely to get out and about in ‘wild places’
Three quarters of all children in the South West enjoyed access to outside spaces at least once a week with 14% going less often and 11% never making a visit to the great outdoors, the study – one of the biggest of its kind ever undertaken – found. Only youngsters in the North East had greater engagement with the outdoors at 78%.
Low income families and children from black, Asian or ethnic minorities were less likely to go on visits to parks, gardens or the countryside. Little more than half – just 56% – of under 16s from black, Asian or ethnic minorities had made a rural visit at least once a week, compared to 74% from white households.
And – perhaps understandably – where adults were frequent countryside visitors, their children went with them. More than 80% of children in households where the adults were lovers of the outdoors said they had frequent access to outside activities. That figure dropped to just 39% where the adults rarely visited the countryside.
The research was prompted by a White Paper from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, which held an inquiry into the Natural Environment and called on the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to set a target to increase public engagement with nature.
The committee asked the Department for Health and the Department for Education to define measurements which demonstrate how greater public engagement with nature delivers gains in public health and education.
In its report, out this week, Natural England says: “There are clear links between positive health outcomes and access to natural environments across all socio-economic groups.”
But it concludes: “The results are of significance in that they highlight clear social inequalities in how children are accessing natural environments, showing a clear link between the frequency at which children visit the natural environment and both their ethnicity and socio-economic status.
“The results also show, as expected, that adults are extremely important mediators of children’s visits to natural environments, with children being more likely to visit more frequently when the adults in their household are frequent visitors.
“Analysis of Monitor of the Engagement with the Natural Environment data has previously revealed that adults are also more likely to be frequent visitors to the natural environment when there are children in their household.
“This growing evidence of strong relationships between the visiting behaviours of adults and children within households will be useful in informing future intervention strategies to support improvements in public health, wellbeing and outdoor learning .”