Coordinating five families to meet up, with no one missing or left out, had been a monumental task. Finally, though, we agreed a date, a time, and a place that worked for all of us. We breathed a collective sigh of relief and crossed all our fingers that no one would need to drop out at the last minute. We would meet at the car park and walk through the woodland, have a picnic, detour round a couple of viewpoints, picnic sites and forest sculptures, walk along the stream, and that would be a grand day out in anyone’s book.
What actually happened was this.
- We met at the car park.
- We spent half an hour faffing about with boots, rucksacks, flasks, hats and gloves, water bottles, car alarms, sandwiches and snacks.
- A sulky child (mine, I’m sorry to say) was finally persuaded to get out of the car.
- We gathered at the gate, finally ready to set off on the walk.
- The children spotted a tree. A tall, broad, magnificent tree. An oak that, had it been human, would have been a favourite grandfather, knelt down on one creaky knee, arms flung wide open, smiling broadly, skin wrinkled, eyes twinkling, laughing softly and inviting children to run to him and leap into his safe, warm, loving embrace.
So they did.
The older ones disappeared up into the canopy. Craning our necks, we could just about make out the soles of their walking shoes. The branches shook as they clambered up through thinner and thinner boughs. The middle children got about three metres up and settled happily on a fat branch. The two young ones got themselves lifted into the main forks where they nestled in their red and green waterproofs like brightly coloured dormice. The toddler tucked herself tightly into a toddler-sized groove in the trunk, gathered some grass for a cushion, licked the bark and introduced herself to a cluster of woodlice.
There is so much research now about the seemingly endless ways in which children benefit from trees. Simply being near trees – never mind climbing them – is fantastic. Trees literally save lives by reducing pollution, and children who live on streets with lots of trees are less likely to suffer from asthma. Then there are the physical health benefits of playing in a tree: all that dangling, climbing, swinging, and stretching makes for a pretty good all-round workout. Brains benefit too: climbing a tree can improve a child’s working memory by as much as 50 per cent!
And we all remember trees we climbed as children, how those individual trees meant something. They were friends, weren’t they?
And yet children don’t climb trees, tethered as they are to solid ground by health-and-safety policies and a misplaced obsession with risk. As some researchers point out, we desperately need a better way to balance children’s safety and their need for and right to challenging and risky play.
Watching those 10 children interact with the Grandad Tree, I realised that we haven’t even scratched the surface of this relationship. I looked again at what was going on in front of us. The five older children were now out of sight up in the crown. Under near-permanent surveillance these days, they rarely have the opportunity to be unobserved, but they still need privacy. And there are no prying adult eyes or security cameras at the top of a tree. How delicious!
The two middle children, chatting away as they crawled along the big branches a few feet above, were making their own stuff up, controlling their own play, were sub-consciously learning about risk, working out what they could and couldn’t do, trying things out. Isn’t that what a sense of mastery is all about? They knew they couldn’t get to the top like the big kids – not yet. But they were stretching their own limits, testing boundaries, getting constant feedback about their abilities and making decisions about risk every second.
The younger pair explored the main fork. My son, who 10 minutes before had been in such a foul mood, stroked the bark and gazed at the light flitting through the leaves. I saw his bad mood evaporate like steam. And then there was the toddler at the foot of the Grandad Tree, muttering to her new woodlice friends, deciding when to offer them a cup of tea, choosing a spot where no adult would be able to squeeze in and join her, working out when she would come out, in her own time…
Cognitive development. Physical health. Nature connection. Privacy, mastery, emotional recalibration, autonomy… the list goes on.
The trees are out there, and their arms are wide open, ready to welcome, scoop up and hug all our children.
Here’s what you can do.
- Go and climb a tree.
- Tell us about your tree! We’re helping to collect stories about what trees and woods mean to people for the Woodland Trust and more than 50 other organisations. Your stories will help them draft a Charter for Trees, Woods and People in 2017. This is more than just celebrating trees – it is a way for us to ‘speak for every tree’ and it will influence policy and practice!
- Collect tree stories from your friends and family.
- You can also get involved in a local Charter Branch (no pun intended!) to explore how to make things better for trees and people in your area.
- Go and climb another tree.
Have you got a story about climbing a tree? Did you do it as a child, or with your children? What are the benefits of trees to young people? Tell us about it and add your voice to the Charter for Trees, Woods and People.
- Alloway, R.G. and Alloway, T.P., 2015. The Working Memory Benefits of Proprioceptively Demanding Training – A pilot study. Perceptual and Motor Skills 120: 766–775.
- Lovasi GS, et al 2008. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 62:647-649.
- Nowak, D.J. et al. 2014. Tree and Forest Effects on Air Quality and Human Health in the United States. Environmental Pollution 193: 119-129.
- Sandseter, E., n.d. ‘We Don’t Allow Children to Climb Trees. How a focus on safety affects Norwegian children’s play in early childhood education and care settings. American Journal of Play 8: 178-200.
- Ulmer et al 2016 Multiple Health Benefits of Urban Tree Canopy: The mounting evidence for a green prescription. Health & Place 42: 54-62
Tamsin Constable for The Wild Network
Cover photo by Laurie Campbell