By Donal Brennan, Headmaster of St Anthony’s School for Girls in Hampstead
The world seems to be metamorphosing into one global metropolis with air-conditioned shopping complexes, vast leisure centres, and learning being driven down an interactive superhighway. Is this right? The natural world of wind, rain and sun is being denied to our children as they experience the world from behind layers of glass and perspex. This is perceived to be progressive, but I challenge this and say that it is the opposite. Children need to splash in puddles, reach to climb trees, and poke about in ponds with sticks. They need to walk and run in both the sun and rain. They need to sense the elements and understand what it means for the wind to blow through their hair, or rivulets of rain to pour over their faces, or feel the earth beneath their fingernails.
At St Anthony’s School for Girls, our children avail of Golder’s Hill Park, our garden for physical activity, play and experience a closeness to nature. Free of buttoned-up shirts and ties, the children become one with the elements around them.
There are benefits: rosy cheeks, increased heartbeats, and a determination to run, jump and climb more. An increased sense of robustness and well-being is evident. The desire to eat a hearty lunch is obvious. The children show a commitment in the class, a confidence during performance and a competitive spirit on the playing fields.
We have opened our windows and doors; we walk in our neighbourhood; and we facilitate our children in being connected to their environment.
How do we reclaim the natural world for our children? Release our children from their overheated classrooms and take them out into their neighbourhood; go to the park, the woods or to the riverbank. Pushkin describes the subtle differences in the seasons; Wordsworth talks of the beauty of the world; Hughes describes in detail creatures of the natural world; and Seamus Heaney transports us to the ploughing fields of his youth. Why not take our children out into these sensory havens of stimulation where mental maths, non-verbal reasoning, critical thinking and topic-learning resources can be accessed by looking, listening and inhaling the scent-laden air of the natural world that has transcended over time?
We are at a crossroads in human impact on the world. Today’s children need to understand what it means if the perma ice is melting; if the habitats of badgers are under threat; and how swallows follow their traditional migratory route. If our children learn to walk in the footsteps of previous generations of people who respected the natural world, then we will not be reading these headlines of Armageddon for planet Earth. They will believe it is a world worth fighting for.