Into the great wide open

by September 2, 2013

Photo by Gábor Arion Kudász, 2012

Today’s children spend less time in nature than any generation before them. Jon Alexander, brand strategist at the UK’s National Trust, and filmmaker David Bond tell SCOPE about the implications for children’s well-being, and about their ambitious (and irreverent) Project Wild Thing, a documentary that looks at what it would take to get boys and girls back outside.

LISA MEEKISON: What is Project Wild Thing and why did the National Trust create this initiative?

JON ALEXANDER: Project Wild Thing is, I believe, the beginning of the biggest thing to happen in the conservation movement for decades, certainly in the UK and possibly globally. Shaking us out of talking amongst ourselves and lamenting the decline of the natural environment and our relationship with it, Project Wild Thing is a film that has created a collaborative network of over 130 organizations committed to turning the tide of generational disconnect from nature – and focusing all of us on the reality that our “competition” is not each other, but everything else that vies for our children’s attention.

As to why the National Trust is involved – and I think to say the Trust created it is probably a slight overstatement – I think the better question is probably why we haven’t been involved in something like this before. The founders of the National Trust articulated a vital insight over 120 years ago, that “the sight of sky and things growing are fundamental needs, common to all men.” They knew then that without contact with nature, we are immeasurably poorer, and they set up the Trust in part to ensure that this kind of contact would be available to everyone, forever. Initially, that created a focus on acquiring land to protect it from development. But now, arguably, the challenge to the preservation of that contact is as much about demand as supply – and that to me is a scarier and more pervasive challenge because it could too easily become invisible. As we spend ever more time on screens, we are forgetting that we need nature, and we are suffering deeply as a society in consequence. Project Wild Thing is an initiative that’s all about reawakening passion. In many ways, the Trust should have been part of something like this long ago.

DAVID BOND: As a father of two small children, I was beginning to notice that they do not go outside nearly as much as I did as a child, and certainly nowhere near as much as my parents did. I wondered how bad things had got, so I attached a camera to my daughter Ivy’s head. She’s 6. It turns out she spent around 4% of her time outside. If she was a dog, I’d be in trouble under animal cruelty laws for not walking her enough. If she was a chicken, she’d be battery, rather than free-range. But she is not unusual. British children go outside less and less, and as a result they are amongst the unhappiest in the developed world, according to recent UNICEF studies.

Time spent outside is the silver bullet, though. It is fun, free, and very good for children’s emotional and mental states. There are many powerful barriers between children and the outside. Project Wild Thing is a feature-length documentary in which I ask how this has happened, whether it matters, and then try to do something about it by launching a nationwide marketing campaign to sell nature. I appoint myself the Marketing Director of Nature and try to take on the big brands at their own game and get children outside again.

At the same time that Green Lions, my production company, was developing the idea of Project Wild Thing, the National Trust was looking for a feature-length film to raise awareness about this issue, and to try to create a movement around it. So we met at the right time, and the National Trust has been incredibly supportive, while also giving us complete freedom to bring the issue to life in our own way.

You both make the case that we need to spend more time outdoors. Jon, you mention that the founders of the National Trust saw it as a fundamental human need, and David, you hold that there’s a connection between being outside and emotional well-being. Can you tell me more about that? What’s the case for needing to spend time outside?

DAVID: The case is strong – and getting stronger. Never in human history have we spent so little time in physical contact with animals and plants. Scientific evidence from around the world shows that we miss nature. Patients with a natural view from their room recover faster and require fewer painkillers than those that look out over a city. Prisoners with cell windows with views of nature have lower stress symptoms, and fewer illnesses. University students with natural views score better on tests. Workers who see trees and flowers are less stressed and report fewer illnesses.

And that’s just a view of nature. If you actually go into it – the results are amazing. Being among plants produces lower concentrations of stress hormones, lower blood pressure, and boosts the immune system. People who meet in nature build a sense of community and their prejudices about race, and economic or educational status are reduced. Time in green settings reduces children’s ADHD symptoms.

One of my favourite studies showed that time spent outdoors gives us a sense of “oneness” with nature and with the universe, and being in nature can lead to transcendental experiences.

But here’s a note of caution. You need to get into it when you are young. Studies have shown that the more nature we get during childhood, the more we want as adults. And the less we get – the less we want. So if you are a parent with young children, take them outside! You have a golden opportunity to give them a habit that will set them up for life.

JON: I don’t think I can add a lot to that answer, except to say this: it comes down to the fact that we’re animals. At the end of the day, like any animal, we need our natural environment to function properly. If we don’t get it, we suffer. Badly. This is not a “nice to have” – it’s essential.

How should we define “nature”? In the film, we see things as narrow as slices of grass, and as sweeping and awesome as islands off mainland Scotland. What counts?

DAVID: To keep it simple, I prefer the ceiling test. Look up. Is there a ceiling? If so, you’re probably not in nature. Now I know that “outdoors” and “nature” are not identical places. You can have wonderful natural experiences indoors – my children and I watched duck eggs hatch in an incubator. But at the same time you are far more likely to see and connect with the natural world if you are outside. Even the least promising outdoor environment will be teeming with life. You can find wonderful wildlife in a concrete playground in a city. The harder you look, the more nature seems to appear anywhere. Peregrine falcons hunt over Oxford Street. I feel strongly that the first step is to see the joy of the outdoors. Once children are hooked on the outdoors, then they can start to categorize and learn what type of outdoors they prefer. I am really against making a list of “good” versus “bad” outdoor spaces. You run the risk of making children feel that the nature they have in their backyard or window box is not “proper” nature. Just because you are in an ancient woodland doesn’t mean you value it or understand it, and you can be the greatest naturalist and never set foot outside a heavily built-up city. Some of the children we met making Project Wild Thing who are best connected to the natural world live in cities. And sadly, some who are most stuck indoors on screens, or ferried from one indoor activity to the next in cars, live in what might look like “perfect” nature. So I’d say look up. If there’s a ceiling, it isn’t nature.

JON: As ever, David and I come from a similar place on this one, but if I were to pull my view away from his slightly, I suppose I (and we as the National Trust) do have a bit more of an ambitious agenda here. While we would totally agree that anything without a ceiling is a damn good start – and actually by far the most important and difficult step to facilitate is the first foray outside – we do believe that some places are more special than others, and that those places make for even more wonderful possibilities. Not that this is what David is saying, but I wouldn’t like to see a world where as long as there weren’t too many ceilings, we thought we’d got nature covered. Experience of any outdoors can give a child a totally different world compared to none; but that’s the difference between starvation and grain, not between starvation and a good meal. We should be greedier than that. We all deserve deep experiences of nature, and those do require deep nature.

In the film, to stimulate appetite for “the good meal” of nature, if I can borrow your phrase, David appoints himself “Marketing Director” for nature. How did you hit on this approach to tell the story of children’s need for nature?

DAVID: The issue that this film addresses is very complicated. There are all sorts of reasons why time spent in nature by children has fallen so dramatically – from the commercialization of play, advertising to children, car culture, stranger danger, risk aversion, lack of outdoor play opportunities, over-development of public spaces… I could go on. Dealing with these one by one in a film would be hard work for the audience. We knew we needed a hook – a way to get into the issue using language that everyone gets.

Then we just had the idea of selling nature. We imagined a sales conference where the marketing director of nature has to stand up and take the heat for his appalling sales figures. We imagined nature’s competitors, games console manufacturers and so on, laughing as they watch sales of nature – the free, fun, healthy, but badly marketed competitor to their stuff – crash. It seemed like a good idea, so we kept at it.

We really like the way it allows us to ask parents what they want their children to consume – screen time or wild time. (Plus, secretly, I’ve always wanted to be a board-level-type person with a great-sounding job title. Given that I have no experience, I thought that self-appointment was the only way.) We also liked the way that the approach allows us to explore what is wrong about marketing to children. All the studies show that children report being happy if they spend time with adults they love, ideally outdoors. It is not a magic formula. So anyone else who sells them alternatives to this has to face up to the fact that they are likely to be reducing children’s well-being.

JON: This was completely David’s idea (with Ash and the team), so I think his answer is the definitive here. But what I can say is why I think it’s such a brilliant approach, and this is for two very different but associated reasons. Firstly, because I genuinely believe that issues around marketing and advertising are right at the heart of this. Speaking as a reformed adman, I know a little bit about this area. As David found out, advertising is just such a pervasive power in our society today. That underlying message of “you are a consumer” is everywhere around us, and we’re effectively conditioning our children to see their role in the world as being to consume rather than to live, breathe, enjoy. Secondly, because it’s just damn funny. And that’s relevant because, as all great comedians through time have known, the more true an observation, the more it strikes at the heart, the funnier it will be.

Project Wild Thing has drawn on an amazing amount of talent, creativity, energy, and commitment to create the film and all the initiatives that support it. What signs are you looking for to determine whether it has all paid off?

DAVID: It is difficult to measure how connected children are to nature. This might sound cynical, but I believe that because there’s no great money to be made getting children outdoors, studies have been thin on the ground. So it is particularly exciting that one of the key partners in the film, the RSPB [Royal Society for the Protection of Birds], working with the University of Essex, has created a baseline measure for the UK. The plan is to measure children’s connectedness to nature over a period of years, and see how it is changing. So all that we know now is that connectedness is low, and we need to increase it. But at least we will have a measure over time to see how things are changing.

In the shorter term, evidence from our test screenings shows that the film raises awareness of the issues in people’s minds, and that in itself (as has happened in my family) helps parents to prioritize outdoor time for themselves and their children. What I know for sure is that films, particularly documentary films, have the power to change things. The story in Project Wild Thing is, I hope, accessible and entertaining. If enough people see it, it will have an effect. I’ve just had an email from one of the first people to see the film. He has a young family, and has completely changed his daily routine to make sure he gets ten minutes outdoors with his children every day. If that’s all we change, it would have been well worth all the time and work.

JON: The reason for looking to get involved with a film came from seeing what has happened to the issue of overfishing over the last five years or so. I saw The End of the Line, and met the director Rupert Murray and the team at the Channel4 BRITDOC Foundation back in 2009, and I watched as that issue shifted gear from one that bumbled along in the press with lots of disconnected angst to one that has now seen concerted action on marine conservation zones, mackerel baps, and much more besides – and I see the End of the Line as being the turning point in that. So the ambition from Day One was that this film could do the same for this issue – of course it won’t change the world overnight, but I believe that in three or four years time those in the know will look back and see the way David has told his family’s story as the moment we started to reverse this trend of generational disconnection from nature.

Tell us about the Wild Network. What role does it play in making Project Wild Thing come to life?

DAVID: The Wild Network is very unusual. A large number of organizations have come to realize the scale of the issue of children’s disconnection from nature. No one group (even one as influential as the National Trust) can effectively tackle it alone. The Wild Network has sprung up to agitate to get children outdoors and into nature – by campaigning to people, communities, and politicians. This is going to be a long and difficult war, but Project Wild Thing is the airborne shock troops. We want the film to drop into hostile territory — or worse, ambivalent territory — and draw fire.

I think the members of the Wild Network feel they need a piece of entertaining media about this issue made by people who come from outside their world. As filmmakers, we’ve been guests in the world of environmental and children’s rights while making the film. As is often the case when very passionate people spend their lives working on an issue, sometimes I think they find it hard to sum up the problem, and a way forward, to outsiders. Project Wild Thing grew out of our desire, as parents, to say something clearly and loudly about this issue, coupled with the Wild Network’s desire to try a new way to get their message across. It has been a fantastic experience for me as a filmmaker for many reasons. Through members of the network, we have met some great thinkers and doers in this space. The film cheekily complains that campaigners have failed to sell nature to children. I get the sense that in the creation of the network, and the building sense of common purpose, that this is changing.

JON: As David says, the film may be finished but the real work is only just beginning – and it’s the Wild Network’s members who are going to have to crack into that real work. It’s true that a big part of this issue is just about individual attitudes and behaviours — we can all go climb a tree, after all — but to leave it there is to forget that as a result of decades of incremental disconnection we have created some major systemic barriers, everything from the prioritization of cars over humanity, to media-driven accentuation of our fears about stranger danger, to policy structures that encourage teachers and parents to keep children indoors, and much more.

Unpicking these is what the Wild Network is there for. It will host collaborative efforts from all the interested groups — from child- and health-focused charities to the National Health Service to the RSPB and the National Trust, to much smaller place-based organizations — to develop key interventions, whether policy interventions or more creative campaigns like Project Wild Thing. The Wild Network is over 130 organizations strong already and growing all the time, so this really could be the start of something special.