In response to the Government’s recent proposals to introduce national exams for 7 year olds, TV presenter Ben Fogle wrote an impassioned article for The Guardian on how putting more pressure on children to achieve in exams is not the answer to our young people’s happiness or success in life.
He writes: ‘I don’t want my children to feel the same sense of failure I did growing up because they’re not good at passing tests.’
I would argue that even if children are good at passing tests, exams put huge amounts of pressure on children to achieve and to define themselves by this narrow measure of their worth. With one in ten children and young people in the UK suffering mental illness and recent international study that showed that children in England are among the unhappiest in the world, surely it’s better we focus on ways to help to improve our children’s emotional wellbeing and mental health rather than piling on more pressure and stress?
Ben Fogle believes that strengthening that elemental connection between human beings and nature is essential to improving our children’s happiness and supporting their social and emotional development:
‘The wilderness rescued me. I have been shaped by my experiences in the great outdoors. Feeling comfortable in the wild gave me the confidence to be who I am, not who others want me to be.
That’s why, instead of pumping time and money into exams, we should focus on wellbeing and encouraging our children to connect with the natural world.’
So I was happy to see so many young families on our recent to the London Wetland Centre last month. To be fair, a lot of them were most excited about the chance to ride in a wagon pulled by a husky and meet Father Christmas, but at least they were also being given the chance to explore a remarkable wilderness in south west London on a cold and blustery winter’s day.
The London Wetland Centre is a wetland reserve in Barnes set up in 2000 by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT). Originally the barren site of four disused Victorian reservoirs, the 42 hectare area has been transformed into a haven for birds from all over the world. There are several different habitats of scrapes, pools, lakes, meadows and gardens to explore (and pond dipping for the kids) and more than 180 species for bird are seen here every year.
Although you might not expect it, winter is an excellent time to visit with many migratory birds settling down in this secluded wildlife paradise for the colder months. It is cold though – there’s little shelter from the wind and by the time we reached the bird hides at the end of the reserve to look out across the wild wetlands, the wind was picking up and the sky was darkening.
We spotted plenty of elegant birds like the black and white diving smew, dainty wigeons and black swans. But my favourites are always the ones that make me laugh – like the male pochards with their ridiculous haircuts, and the tufted diving duck which never ceases to amuse when it pops up from the water after one of its dives with it’s feathers sticking up and a mad look in its eye. Sadly the eider ducks were swimming gracefully but quietly and not doing their Kenneth Williams impression – the mating call we heard from them in the spring. It is one of the best, most bonkers things, I’ve ever heard.
Walking round the park and reading the signs about the birds, it’s depressing to see how many birds are threatened and critically endangered. Did you know, for example, that as the polar ice recedes and polar bears are less and less able to hunt seals, they have begun in desperation to hunt barnacle geese? These protected birds winter in Europe in places like the London Wetland Centre but breed in the Arctic during the summer.
So the Centre provides an important opportunity to educate all generations on the importance of looking after out environment, and the work of the WWT focuses on rescuing endangered species from the edge of extinction and protecting and repairing wetlands for the benefit of wildlife and human beings.
My love of nature was nurtured when I was a child by visits to places like Slimbridge Wetland Centre in Gloucester where we used to go every summer we stayed with my great aunt. I look forward to taking my own children to visit these places one day – for them to listen to bird calls, feel the brisk wind on their faces and wonder at the bright beauty of nature as it unfolds before us, so often unseen.
Images below by film maker James Burt