FACTS – from the Children and Nature Network

Today 1 in 4 children are overweight compared to 1 in 20 in 1960

1 in 3 children are vitamin D deficient

Over 72% of children watch more than 2 hours TV per day; over one-third of households have more than 3 TVs and more than one-third of older children have a TV in their bedroom

There are increasing levels of visual problems caused by watching screens

Only 10% of children walk to school compared to 55% in 1970

1 in 4 young people have an episode of depression before they turn 18


Mud is a feminist issue!

When you boil it down, sexism is about one thing – restriction. Saying – you can’t do that, or be that, or want that – because of the gender you are. For everyone, girls and women, boys and men, walls have been built over centuries to prevent us from just being ourselves. Some of these walls we can see, and others we don’t even notice.

One striking way that limitations are put on little girls, even toddlers, is the subtle but pervasive message that they have to stay neat and clean. This is closely linked in with the wearing of clothes that are too fragile and “dressy” to allow active play. So while boys can play in the mud, run and roll and climb trees, wrestle and laugh, girls are supposed to sit and be quiet and nice. More and more today, mothers and fathers dress their little girls in impossibly frilly, delicate and often expensive clothes that in effect say to the wearer “watch out!”, “don’t get dirty!”. We think we are making them feel special, while all we are doing is keeping them from doing their most important developmental task – having messy fun. This is a really dangerous message, because it says in effect – how you look is so important that it affects what you are allowed to do.

So, we have to reverse this. And its so simple to do so. You start by making sure your daughter has, and uses, rough and ready clothes, sturdy footwear, and a durable sunhat, as much of the time as possible – and then letting her know – go for it!. Without any worries about mud or dirt, rips or tears – and washing it off afterwards is half the fun.

Science is on your side in this. Playing in nature, and getting dirty, turns out to be very good for children. For example, researchers think that problems like asthma and eczema may be reduced if your child encounters enough bacteria, bugs and beasties to stimulate their immune system while very young. This may even be the reason that children instinctively put things in their mouths. (If you find yourself flinching at this, perhaps your own childhood was affected by parental anxiety around dirt. And of course, this kind of sexism – boys get dirty, girls stay neat, has been going on for many generations.

Perhaps best of all though, muddy and dirty play gets over that barrier so that they grow up feeling at home in nature, and therefore the whole world around them becomes an adventure, not a fear. A child who is afraid of getting messy or being out in the world of sky and trees, is deeply impoverished. And that mostly happens to girls.

It helps if we stay out of things as much as possible. When kids play, in an unstructured way, without adults trying to make it a “teaching” experience, but just being nearby to apply the occasional band-aid or hug, they go into the most intense learning. And nature is one of the best places to do this, because there is just so much richness of material for play and imagination.

There is even some research suggesting that microbes in soil stimulate the brain to produce higher levels of natural anti-depressants! Children who often play in nature also have lower incidence of ADHD (because it exercises their ability to pay attention) and lower levels of obesity (because nothing uses energy like playing outdoors).

They also see better. Looking at screens like iPads and laptops in early childhood alters the visual brain of a child because everything is the same distance away. In nature, you are holding tiny things up to your face, gazing rapidly away, seeing into the distance and tracking moving things like birds and animals, all brilliant visual exercise.

The texture, complexity and toughness of natural materials means imagination and experimentation knows no limits. Tiny houses of grass, castles of rocks, swords of branch, shelters of old bits of wood.

The small creatures – slater bugs, worms, and beetles they come across bring out a real fascination and nurturing instincts, while ants and bees also remind them there is danger, but it can be managed. Kids naturally love living things – whether its growing radishes, or keeping a lizard for a few hours before letting it go free. In fact, give a toddler their own bit of garden, and they don’t even have to plant anything, they just love to dig it, shape it, or poke sticks into it.

No expensive toys are needed, just a bucket or a few containers, and something to shovel with, a trowel or wooden spoon, and hours of play can result. If its warm, add some water and the real fun begins!

Of course, if there are other kids around, then play possibilities go through the roof. There is then so much learning about initiative, co-operation, and how to get along without adults always stepping in. You can choose to do your own thing, or get going on a joint project, according to your ability and how well it works out.

In short, make sure your girl gets some time in the messy world of nature as often, and as early as you can, and she will become a different kind of girl. She will grow free, strong, unafraid, at home in the world, fit and capable. At least as good as any boy. It makes being a pink princess look pretty boring.

Strong Womanhood

At our house we love to watch box-set DVD’s.  No ads, intelligent TV, and if its too much of a cliffhanger we just rock on to the next episode.  Now our kids are grown up, its a great bit of couple time too.  I love to hear the little sounds Shaaron makes of empathy and response to the situations and characters.  And if I literally “lose the plot” I can just pause it and ask her what the heck is going on!.

Right now we are watching “Borgen”, the Danish drama about a woman Prime Minister, her family and her life in politics.  I love the subtle differences in people from different countries – Denmark seems notably more equal and the women, at least on this TV show, don’t do the cutesy simpering things that they often do on US television.

The plot though, has taken a dark turn, as it has to midway through any TV drama worthy of the name.  The PM is so engrossed in her political challenges, which are of course huge, that she is ignoring her teenage daughter’s cries for help.  Her marriage has already broken down under the strain.  And what’s worse, when the daughter makes all those usual teenage signs of being deeply unhappy, she gets angry with her for being immature or a nuisance.

I find it almost unbearable to watch (you can tell I get a bit over-involved in television, that’s why I don’t watch much).  The clearly mounting distress of the daughter with nobody hearing her signals.  Her loneliness, and the fact that she DOES love her mother and father and little brother.  She is an open hearted girl, the things that make her good are now making her so vulnerable.

When I was doing lots of radio and TV interviews for the Raising Girls book launch last year,  I found myself searching for concise and easy to remember messages that would sum up the message of the book, and be helpful to anyone listening too. I decided there were three basic things that any girl needs to make it to strong womanhood.

1. To be protected from the tidal wave of trash media that comes through our TV sets, internet and smartphones.  Especially when young, not to be drowned in images of women as objects of decoration, anxieties about weight and looks, and the pure chaos of modern media that so disrupts our sense of being grounded in a beautiful world.

2. To have a father who treats her as if she is important, valuable, and interesting, for herself.  By his time and actions and words, he conveys to her that she is special and worthwhile.

And last of all, and most important.

3. A mother who has time to listen and talk.  To spend those thousands of hours of her growing up, helping to transmit strong and thoughtful womanhood.  A mum, in other words, who isn’t rushed, swept away with other priorities, or too lost in her own stuff, to be there for her.  Even if she is the Prime Minister of Denmark.

These are not easy things to provide.  But knowing they are there, like clear strong beacons to aim for, might help.