Robin Bowman & Chris Salisbury describe the tactic of using popular fiction to encourage teens to engage with the natural world.
Which bird’s call can warn of an oncoming storm? Which mushroom can you use to light a fire? Do you know? Do your children know? If not, does that matter? The answers to these questions are just some of what humans have known about the natural world since we first inhabited the western edge of Europe 800,000 years ago.
Half of our generation, growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, regularly played and roamed in wild places, compared with just one in ten today. 2014 became the year we could no longer avoid the subject of Nature-deficit disorder, a term coined by Richard Louv to describe the effect changes in modern lifestyles are having on our children, and the starvation that their interaction with the natural environment is causing their wellbeing and health. The National Trust’s 2012 report Natural Childhood came out with some frightening statistics. On average Britain’s children watch more than 17 hours of television a week and spend more than 20 hours a week online. There is little doubt that there are some serious problems, with one in twelve adolescents self-harming, 35,000 on anti-depressants, and around three in ten children in England aged between 2 and 15 either obese or overweight. All these problems have been, at least in part, attributed by researchers to a decrease in the time today’s children spend outdoors compared to previous generations.
Depressing stuff. However, it’s also clear through the evidence of research that the benefits to children who are exposed to nature are overwhelming. They score higher in almost every category, whether concentration and reasoning, or reading and writing, whilst consistently showing general overall behavioural improvement, as well as responsibility, better attitude and leadership. More importantly, their self-esteem, motivation and confidence are greater.
But the long-term effects of this dislocation with nature, not just for us, but for the natural world, must not be underestimated – not least because, as Louv says, “If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment we must also save an endangered species: the child in nature.”
Since 1999, we at WildWise have been considering the particular challenge of how to coax modern teenagers away from their screens to spend meaningful time in nature. We know we are up against a vast marketing machine invested in keeping children and young people indoors with video games and social media and shopping addictions. We decided to look more closely at engaging with the teenagers’ interests, and we launched a series of five-day camps based in the woods and inspired entirely by the trilogy of books and films The Hunger Games.
In brief, The Hunger Games is a 2008 science-fiction novel by the American writer Suzanne Collins, written in the voice of 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives in the post-apocalyptic nation of Panem. The ‘Capitol’, a highly advanced metropolis, exercises political control over the rest of the nation. The Hunger Games are an annual event in which one boy and one girl aged between 12 and 18 from each of the twelve districts surrounding the ‘Capitol’ are selected by lottery to become the ‘Tributes’, and have to compete in a televised battle to the death in a vast wilderness ‘Arena’. Although combat skills are important, it is the bushcraft and wilderness skills Katniss learned hunting with her father that stand her in good stead.
We realised that at WildWise we already had all the expertise, skills and resources to design a camp based on the hugely successful Hunger Games concept, and that this could be just the siren we needed to call the teenagers outdoors and into the woods. And we were right, because they have answered this call. And they came in droves.
But there is something else interesting and important going on here…
Traditionally, since the early days of the Scout movement, bushcraft and messing about in woods have been more in the domain of teenage boys than of teenage girls. We have seen this played out very clearly in our events – the teenage girls go missing from the outdoors. I have seen with my own teenage daughters how the high street has caught their attention, and how peer pressure prevents them from choosing the great outdoors. The real challenge is how to coax teenage girls into participating in these bushcraft and woodland-skills-based camps and thus into a deep connective experience with Nature. Here’s where the Hunger Games idea comes up trumps, as the real hero of the story is a strong, empowered teenage girl. Not only does the film have a female lead, but it’s a role that hasn’t been over-sexualised. Stories, especially blockbusters and bestsellers, that portray young women in this light are far too few and far between. I’m delighted to report that teenage girls have made up more than half of the participants in our Hunger Games events.
And what’s more, it’s the girls rather than the boys who succeed in being crowned ‘Victors’.
So how does it all work in the field? In the WildWise Hunger Games, ‘Tributes’ arrive at our ‘Capitol’ and spend the first two days camping together at the ‘Training Camp’, learning all the wilderness and survival skills they’ll need in the ‘Arena’. These include fire making, archery, sneaking and stalking, shelter/den building, camouflage, edible and medicinal plant use, setting snares, and Nature-awareness skills such as bird language. They will also be winning sponsors, hoping to get support from a gift parachuted into the Arena. On the morning of the third day, pairs of Tributes enter the Arena and the Games begin. Grabbing a backpack from the ‘Cornucopia’ filled with all the essential survival stuff such as sleeping bag, basic food, water bottle and something to help make a shelter, and armed with a trusty nerf-gun, each participant takes off into the wildwoods to survive, to make fires, to find food and water, and to ‘kill’ the other tributes with the nerf-gun by stalking, camouflage and sneaking, in the hope of becoming ‘Victors’. Far from their computer screens, it’s the ultimate game of ‘Manhunt’/’40-40’/’Capture the Flag’ – a unique and magical time immersed deep in the woods in an elaborate role-play.
And if you are concerned about the competitive element and violent undercurrents in the books and film, this aspect is not given any attention, in fact, to the contrary, it’s been a remarkable community-building experience, and in the 6 years we’ve been running these camps I’m delighted to report we’ve seen some of the very best nature connection in the young people we’ve ever had.
So maybe, just maybe, if you ask your teenagers next year which bird can warn you of an oncoming storm or which mushroom you can use to start a fire, they’ll look at you with a twinkle in the eye and say that they could tell you but it would be better if you yourself went to the woods, like our ancestors did, to find out for yourself.
Robin Bowman, lead instructor on the WildWise Hunger Games & Chris Salisbury, director of WildWise
Find out more
The 2019 WildWise Hunger Games www.wildwise.co.uk
Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-deficit Disorder (Workman Books, 2008)
Stephen Moss, Natural Childhood (National Trust, 2012)
Aric Sigman, Agricultural Literacy: Giving Concrete Children Food for Thought (2007)