Children from low-income families and black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) households are markedly less likely than white children and those from higher income households to frequently visit urban or rural wild places, according to the survey conducted by Natural England.
Just 56% of under-16s from BAME households visited the natural environment at least once a week, compared to 74% from white households.
“There’s a lack of role models,” said broadcaster and ‘urban birder’ David Lindo. “In the last 10 years I’ve seen a slight increase in black birdwatchers but still nowhere near as much as there should be. When you look at the media, nature is still portrayed as a purely white pastime.”
The enthusiasm of parents for green spaces strongly influenced whether children visited natural environments. In households where adults were frequent visitors, 82% of children followed their lead. In households where the adults rarely or never visited the natural environment, the proportion of children visiting fell to 39%.
Natalie Johnson of the Wild Network, a non-for-profit organisation, said: “The problems are fear, space, tech and time, and they vary massively across the country. In the countryside, the biggest barrier is busy country roads. Inner city kids have genuine gang problems.
“In middle class suburbia, it’s the parents – how do you tell parents that the time children play freely outside is as important as their French lesson, their ballet lesson and their Mandarin lesson?”
Johnson said the Wild Network aimed to provide parents and children with the practical tools and inspiration to access wild nature, wherever they lived. “Urban wildness is real and kids will find it themselves,” she said. “As parents, we don’t have to curate experiences – we just have to give them time.”
Surprisingly, mucking about with other children outdoors isn’t completely a thing of a bygone era: according to the study, 22% of children visited the natural environment without any adults present, 16% doing so every week.
Findlay Wilde, a 13-year-old wildlife blogger, said too many parents stopped taking children into the natural world when they entered secondary school, which also failed to make the environment a core subject.
“Once children hit high school they become more independent and might think being interested in the natural world is uncool,” he said. “If they can, parents need to keep their connection with their children and continue to take them outdoors.”
Wilde also called for conservation groups to combine with secondary schools and send thousands of volunteers into the schools to help support teachers and pupils in exploring and enjoying natural environments.
The study found that just 8% of school-aged children visited natural environments with their schools but conservationists suggested that this figure was inaccurate because the study was based on interviews with parents, who may not be aware of schools’ environmental work, such as creating wildflower areas in school grounds.
The RSPB is offering free two-hour wildlife sessions for pupils and teachers in school grounds in 15 major cities in Britain, funded by supermarket Aldi’s plastic bag levy, as part of a strategy to widen access to wildlife in urban areas.
Suzanne Welch, head of education, families and youth for the RSPB, said: “Special places are lovely, we have magnificent nature reserves but if you’re going to form that emotional bond with the natural world you have to do it frequently so it has to be local.
“We believe that all children should have the opportunity and access [to nature] and so educationally we want to offer access across the board.”
A US study last year revealed that environmental groups do a worse job than business and sports in promoting minorities and women.
British conservationists said they were acutely aware of the lack of non-white people among their organisations and members. “It’s recognised, it’s not hidden under the carpet anymore,” said Welch.
Lindo said he did not blame conservation charities for the lack of black and ethnic minority visits to natural environments but said there was a need for more minority role models on wildlife TV. When he led school trips, Lindo said he saw black and ethnic minority children suddenly respond to wildlife: “Once they see someone else of their ethnicity they think, ‘oh, it’s okay now’”.
The Natural England study was supported by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Forestry Commission. Dr Tim Hill, Natural England’s chief scientist, said: “The results from this survey highlight the importance of having green space nearby to children and families – whether that’s a local park or nature reserve.”
Five ways to engage children with nature
- Play outside Today’s children have a largely screen-based lifestyle, with just 21% regularly playing outside compared with 71% of their parents. Let them get outside at every opportunity and start them early – toddlers are very curious about the touch and feel of the natural world, so let them pick things up and get dirty.
- Roam free Research suggests that children’s “roaming radius” from home has shrunk by 90% in 30 years. Experts say that as children approach their teenage years, they should be given them more responsibility to walk, cycle or explore wild places on their own.
- Climbing trees This is seen as a great way to learn for a child to learn about individual levels of risk. Some reports suggest that half the UK’s children are banned from tree-climbing in case they fall, but data has shown that three times as many children have gone to hospital after falling out of bed.
- Building dens When done with friends and family teaches cooperation, resourcefulness, problem-solving and encourages children’s imaginations.
- Get up close to nature by catching and releasing butterflies, insects and frogspawn, or collecting and pressing flowers and leaves