How mid-century Amsterdam built 700 doorstep playgrounds – and then forgot about them

Ben Highmore– Professor of Cultural Studies, University of Sussex

What would a child-friendly city look like? One scenario goes like this: you wake up in the city one morning, there is no traffic, all you can hear are children playing and the occasional dog barking. All around you, muffling sound and covering dirt, is a magical material –- snow. It is malleable. It has endless possibilities. It turns hills into giant slides and you can build with it.

Snow days are, of course, temporary aberrations within urban life. As such, they are rapidly corrected by snowploughs, salt and gravel, or, in warmer countries, simply by the weather. Snow turns to slush, traffic returns, school resumes.

Another possibility was offered by the Dutch architect and playground designer Aldo van Eyck. Between 1947 and 1978, he designed and built around 700 playgrounds in Amsterdam. Sand, not snow, was his magical material.

An archival photograph in black and white of children playing on a playground.
The sandpit at Saffierstraat 34-40. Amsterdam City Archives/010009009101

The mid-20th century was a period of intense activity around play provision in western and northern Europe, as my research has shown. Aldo van Eyck put children and play at the centre of his humanist approach to modernism.

An archival photograph of children in a sandpit.
Small children dig in the Vegastraat sandpit. Amsterdam City Archives/010009013156

The magic of a sandpit

A black and white portrait of a man.
Aldo van Eyck in 1970. Fotocollectie Anefo/Wikimedia

Van Eyck belonged to a generation of architects who were critical of the urban rationalism of the modern movement. They loved many modernist buildings but hated the sort of urban planning that went with them, whereby the city was arranged around zones of dwelling, zones of work, grids of transport and hubs of recreation.

By contrast, van Eyck and his peers wanted to humanise the modern movement. One way of doing that was to insist that children should be at its centre.

Most of the playground he conceived of were small, modest affairs. There was no showy paraphernalia, no zip-wires or intricate climbing frames. Very few of them even had swings.

Instead, they had low walls, benches, sand pits, stepping stones, simple sets of aluminium bars in the shape of rudimentary bridges, cones and what van Eyck dubbed “igloos”. The playgrounds weren’t fenced off from the rest of the neighbourhood.

Adults, with or without children, would stop there and read a newspaper for a while. Children would hang upside down from an aluminium bar or run along a low wall or jump from one stepping stone to the next.

Little boys drag large timbers into a sandpit.
Sandpit maintenance. Amsterdam City Archives/10009A005117

At the centre, there was usually a sandpit, sometimes with concrete islands, and often filled with children.

Sandpits require vigilance and care if they are to avoid becoming harbingers of dirt and disease. They need to be cleaned, and cleared of any animal deposits, and the sand regularly changed.

‘A launchpad to the outside world’

Van Eyck thought of his playgrounds as “doorstep” playgrounds. But the doorstep wasn’t just a metaphor for the proximity that they would have to children’s homes.

Children playing on a playground in a black and white photograph.
A playground on Laurierstraat. Amsterdam City Archives/10009A003950

Unlike the abstraction of “dwelling” as a concept, the doorstep was a physical reality. It was an actual step, that children sat on, while a parent talked to a neighbour. It could be a fort or a mountain. It was a bridge, too, between home and the street, between family and something bigger. It was the launch pad to the outside world.

Aldo van Eyck had joined Amsterdam’s Department of Public Works in 1946. By 1951 he had formed his own architectural practice but continued working for the municipality constructing playgrounds on a consultancy basis until 1978.

In 1961, the International Play Association was born in Copenhagen, Denmark. In 1974, Arvid Bengtsson, the Swedish landscape architect and then president of the association, published The Child’s Right to Play, in which he campaigned for playgrounds to be close to where children live.

Indeed, he wrote, they “should be within sight and hearing distance of home”. A city like Amsterdam needed 700 playgrounds to meet this target.

An archival photograph of a playground with children on bikes and rubbish.
Litter in the Tuinstraat playground. Amsterdam City Archives/10009A004335

The playgrounds he established were built on neglected plots of land. Some of these were unloved bits of ground, the dumping grounds that every city has. Other plots had a more traumatic history.

The 1956 playground in the west of Zeedijk, for instance, was built on the footprint of two houses that had once housed Jewish families who had been deported and murdered during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. The two homes had been dismantled by local residents looking for anything to burn to keep warm.

Today, only about 17 of Aldo van Eyck’s playgrounds remain. The one on Zeedijk, the street in the old city that runs along the boundary of the De Wallen neighbourhood, featured abstract murals by Joost van Roojen. Though it won awards when it was first built, it slowly fell into disrepair in the 1970s, when the area became an enclave for heroin addicts.

A tall mural in a playground.
The Zeedijk playground mural. Amsterdam City Archives/OSIM00002003835

By the 1990s, nothing was left of the original Zeedijk playground design. Talking at the end of his life, van Eyck noted how these structures, that he had posited as so central to his vision of the modern city, had to be maintained if they were to survive:

An urban ingredient as vulnerable as playgrounds cannot survive without constant attention and special care.


How getting out into nature can help people with drug and alcohol problems

Wendy Masterton– Lecturer in Criminology (specialist in substance use), University of Stirling Hannah Carver– Lecturer in Substance Use, University of Stirling Tessa Parkes– Professor of Substance Use and Inclusion Health, University of Stirling

Health professionals may suggest people spend more time out in nature to help with their physical fitness by doing activities in woods, parks or gardens, but research has shown nature-based programmes are also particularly effective for improving poor mental health.

Our previous work showed that important aspects of why these programmes work include increased connection to nature, time away from the pressures of daily life, a greater sense of purpose, the learning of new skills, physical activity and increased opportunities for social interactions.

Growing evidence now shows that spending time in a natural environment could also improve the health and wellbeing of people with experience of drug and alcohol problems.

Activities offered on these programmes can include hiking, camping, gardening, conservation activities and adventure activities such as rock climbing, among others.

Although there’s increased awareness that time in nature may benefit people with drug and alcohol problems, there has been limited research until now, particularly in the UK, into how best to design effective nature-based programmes for this group.

During our study, we spoke to staff working in nature-based programmes for people with poor mental health and substance use issues, and researchers interested in the role of nature for health, among others. They told us the reasons why these programmes are effective for people with drug and alcohol problems are similar to why they improve mental health.

For example, participants benefit from escaping daily stresses and having space to reflect. The increase in physical activity also improves overall health.

The confidence people gain from doing new activities can help them to regain a sense of purpose. This can lead to positive changes whereby they no longer feel defined solely by their substance use.

They can also feel less alone, thanks to relationships built with staff and others using the programmes. This is important given the high levels of loneliness and isolation reported by many people with alcohol and drug problems.

Finally, the development of relationships with other people on the programmes who haven’t faced drug and alcohol problems can reduce stigma. We know stigma experienced by people with drug and alcohol problems can increase the likelihood of harm from substances and reduce inclination to get help.

A group of people gardening.
Nature-based programmes can foster social connections.

Although exposure to nature in this way could lead to reductions in substance use, it’s important to note this isn’t the explicit aim of these programmes. Nature-based schemes don’t usually require a commitment to reduce or completely stop the use of drugs and alcohol that’s often present in other treatment settings.

The focus instead is on wider components of health, meaning nature-based programmes can benefit people whether they’re trying to reduce their substance use or not.

With the insights from this research, we created a new framework showing how positive outcomes are achieved from nature-based programmes for people with poor mental health and drug and alcohol problems.

The framework shows how it’s the interaction between time in nature, changes within a person (such as increased confidence), and shifts in social relationships which lead to positive, holistic results. We hope that, based on our findings, programmes can be designed and implemented more effectively for this group of people.

High levels of drug-related deaths

In 2021, there were 4,859 drug-related deaths registered in England and Wales, and 1,330 in Scotland. In the same year, 9,641 alcohol-related deaths were recorded in the UK.

Notably, drug- and alcohol-related harm is not equal across all social groups. For example, in deprived areas of Scotland, deaths from both drugs and alcohol are significantly higher.

Politicians, researchers and drug treatment experts have described the level of drug-related harm in the UK as a public health emergency.

However, people facing problems with drugs and alcohol can find both addiction and mental health services challenging due to stigma, previous negative experiences, and unrealistic expectations about stopping substance use.

Read more: Green prescriptions: should your doctor send you for a walk in the park?

Adding nature-based programmes as an approach to treatment has the potential to address several policy recommendations in drug and alcohol policy in Scotland and the wider UK.

For example, tackling stigma, delivering a holistic approach, increased focus on engaging with those who don’t currently access services, and more support for community-based projects, have all been highlighted as ways to improve access to support and treatment. Nature-based programmes for people with drug and alcohol problems aim to meet all of these objectives.

Also, programmes can provide support for people who have difficulties with both substance use and mental health. This is important because 70% of people using drug services and 86% of people using alcohol services also experience mental health problems.

Read more: Why ‘finding your purpose’ matters – and four ways to find yours

If used as part of a substance use treatment plan where the service user’s preferences and needs are prioritised. Nature-based programmes could be a viable solution for supporting people with drug and alcohol problems at a time when related harms are rising.

Increasing pressure on drug and alcohol services to deliver support to people with many different, complex needs means that exploring new initiatives, like nature-based programmes, is now essential – particularly among those already facing health and social inequalities.


How plants can change your state of mind

Sven Batke– Lecturer in Biology, Edge Hill University

Plants look so different from animals, that it’s easy for many people to think of them as alien and separate from us. Most people appreciate how pretty flowers and trees look and know photosynthesis is essential to life. But our mental and physical connection to plantlife runs deeper than you might expect.

The scientific evidence that plants play a fundamental role in shaping our mental state and decreasing the risk of mental and physical illnesses is mounting.

They can reduce depression, anxiety and mood disorder symptoms in humans by reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol which can lower heart rate and promote a feelgood state of mind.

Several studies have shown horticulture therapy may help some people manage their PTSD symptoms and improve their quality of life once more.

They can even increase your creativity through stimulating the brain with their vibrant, natural colours.

Many people think of plants as nice-looking greens. Essential for clean air, yes, but simple organisms. A step change in research is shaking up the way scientists think about plants: they are far more complex and more like us than you might imagine. This blossoming field of science is too delightful to do it justice in one or two stories.

This article is part of a series, Plant Curious, exploring scientific studies that challenges the way you view plantlife.

A growing sense of wellbeing

Even the little potplant on your desk may have a more potent effect on you than you might realise. The houseplants you bought to brighten up your home or workplace may actually be helping you to think more clearly. Studies have shown that surrounding yourself by plants could improve your concentration by up to 20% and increase your ability to recall information by 15-20%. Plants do this by reducing CO₂ concentration and improving air quality.

According to UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidelines, CO₂ concentration should not exceed 1,000 parts per million (ppm) in offices, as at this level it can causes headaches, fatigue and dizziness.

Grey cat on windowsill next to red pot plant
Flamingo flowers are great at reducing carbon dioxide levels. Chyzh Galyna/Shutterstock

It can also lead to poorer decision-making. Research has shown that in some cases house plants can decrease carbon dioxide concentration from 2,000ppm to about 480ppm in less than one hour indoors. Popular house plants that efficiently remove carbon dioxide include the blue star fern (Phlebodium aureum), weeping figs (Ficus benjamina), spider plants (Chlorophytum comosum) and Anthurium species (such as the flamingo flower).

Some plants, of course, can also alter our body chemistry – just think of the many species used as medicinal or recreational drugs. It is ironic that some people think of plants as little more than nice-looking greens when humans have been using them to explore different states of consciousness, relieve pain and to relax for tens of thousands of years.


Plants have been central to human society from our very beginning, but the way we use and connect with plants has changed over generations and throughout civilisations. From being reliant on plants for food and medicine during the palaeolithic era (up to 11,000 years ago), modern society has in many ways lost its appreciation and awareness of plants.

The World Bank has estimated that by the year 2050, seven out of ten people will be living in cities and access to plants in their natural environment will become more challenging. We have become more disconnected from nature. But despite all the options for comfort and leisure 21st century technology offers us, we can’t quite seem to stay away.

Violet petals of saffron blossom close view.
Saffron: The author’s daughter was named after this colourful flower. Kalina Georgieva/Shutterstock

Humans have “biophilia”, which means we are wired to seek connection with nature and plants. Plants increase happiness hormones such as endorphin in humans. They are not only intertwined with the fate of the human species but deeply rooted in who we are as individuals. The shape, colour, smell, feel and taste of plants can uplift us when we interact with them in the moment and blossom in our memories.

From the velvety feel of flower petals against your fingertips, to the delicious scent of essential oils they release to attract pollinators, to the irresistibly mellow taste of chocolate, plants have been tantalising our senses throughout human history.

Man relaxing in bath with glass of wine surrounded by houseplants
Plants can evoke all the senses. AnnaStills

We all have different memories and experiences that make us connect with plants. For example, the plant that makes me most happy and invokes in me a deep feeling of love is Crocus sativus, as I named my first daughter after it (Saffron).

During the COVID pandemic plant sales in Britain increased by over 30%, as people rediscovered the importance of plants for their mental wellbeing. In 2021 the UK spent over £7.6 billion on plants, which is £1-2 billion higher compared to the two previous years.

Plants aren’t are a luxury. They are part of who we are. It is not surprising to find that the word “plant” translates in many native languages to “those who take care of us”.


Exploring perceptions of green social prescribing among clinicians and the public

Published 30th March 2023

Executive summary

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) commissioned IFF Research to gather robust evidence on perceptions and behaviours related to green social prescribing (GSP). IFF conducted 2 surveys:

  • one with 4,000 patients or potential users of GSP services
  • one with 501 clinicians

This was followed by some qualitative in-depth interviews to gain further insight into how GSP could be scaled up as an intervention.

Overall, the appetite for (green) social prescribing is high among both clinicians and the public:

  • nearly all clinicians would refer patients to social prescribers in the future
  • the majority of patients are open to discussing opportunities for mental health support in their local community with a healthcare professional, including spending time in nature

It is common for both audiences to regularly spend time in nature already, with the majority doing so at least weekly. This is a relatively ‘privileged’ activity: those with higher income, with no disabilities and in good overall health are likely to spend time in nature more frequently. Unsurprisingly, access also plays a significant role: those living in more rural areas spend time in nature more frequently. The public recognise that spending time in nature improves both their mental and physical health.

Clinicians do not always know or conceive of GSP as an intervention distinct from social prescribing in general: while most are aware and have previous experience of social prescribing, fewer could say the same for GSP. The public are also generally aware that their healthcare professional can refer them to non-medical support but it was relatively uncommon for patients to have prior experience of being referred to an organised nature-based activity. It was more typical for those seeking support for their mental health to have been given a more informal recommendation by their healthcare professional, such as to ‘try to get outside’.

Both clinicians and the public feel the potential benefits of GSP for improving patient mental health are clear. They also feel there are distinct benefits to be gained from spending time in nature compared to other interventions available through social prescribing – such as the outside world giving perspective to, and relief from, their thoughts. The specific type of activity that patients would be open to participating in depends on their individual preferences.

Clinicians see green social prescribing as part of a holistic approach to patient care, as do patients, that is an intervention which can work alongside more traditional interventions, such as medication or therapy. However, a significant minority of clinicians believe that patients would prefer more traditional interventions, which can discourage clinicians from talking to patients about nature-based activities.

Fewer clinicians see benefits from GSP to the wider health system, such as reduced patient need for additional services. Some feel it is too early to say due to the current modest scale of GSP and that additional investment into community services is needed to enable GSP to make an impact in this way.

Currently, the most common barrier to making a referral to a nature-based activity for clinicians is a lack of knowledge of how to refer. This is particularly the case for non-GPs, reflecting a difference in referral route: non-GPs tend not to have direct access to a social prescriber in their team. More information on who their nearest social prescriber is and the process for referring to them would help.

Clinicians also feel they currently lack knowledge of local nature-based activities which patients can take part in and would value more information on the availability of specific services or activities in the local area to which they can refer patients. They feel that feedback on patient outcomes following referral to a nature-based activity would be helpful to more accurately gauge the success of this as an intervention – at the moment they tend to only hear from patients where a referral has not been successful and the patient has returned to see them.

Similarly to clinicians, patients do not feel they have enough information on what options are available to them locally. Some also face barriers which would need addressing, both practical and attitudinal: some are concerned about the potential cost or logistical difficulty of taking part, while others lack confidence to go alone.

In line with how social prescribing is designed to work, clinicians feel that their role is to tell patients about potential non-medical options of support in the community, including nature-based ones, and to direct them to a social prescriber. It is then the responsibility of the social prescriber to explain the interventions and GSP in more detail, and to determine, along with the patient, the most suitable activity for them.

Read the full Report here:


Earth Day Fair

Haveringland Church is hosting an ‘Earth Day’ event to mark this international anniversary, which is all about helping to restore the planet. With a packed Church of displays, fun activities and programme of talks and project launches, the day is also hoping to raise funds towards installing an all access toilet, baby changing area and kitchen in the Church.

Over 20 displays and activities will be on hand from a wide range of organisations such as Norfolk Wildlife Trust, the Broads National Park, Norfolk Master Composters, Hillside Animal Sanctuary, Aylsham Roman Project etc. There will be a pre-loved clothes sale and tombola too.

The event- jointly organised with Norfolk Green Care Network, will see the launch of the ‘Living Landscape’ project in the afternoon which is all about developing a community approach to improving biodiversity around the area.

In the morning a ‘First Nature’ campaign to expand nature connection opportunities for children and young people across Norfolk will be launched. This features presentations from young people and the launch of The Bishop of Norwich Award for projects or organisations that do great work to expand nature connection for children.

The full programme is:

11am First Nature launch

  • The First Nature Campaign- Nigel Boldero, NGCN
  • Presentations from young people (Youth Advisory Boards and a Broads Project)
  • Louise Ambrose- Forest Schools
  • Kitty Sanderson- Climate Change Anxiety
  • Jacky Honour and Jeremy Buxton- Farm visits/Country Trust
  • Nick Sanderson- Broads Authority
  • Q/A’s /panel discussion and next steps

12.30pm- Bats!- Philip Parker

1pm- Eco Church- Barbara Bryant

2pm Living Landscape Launch

  • Welcome and introduction- – Prof Tim O’Riordan (CPRE and NALC President)
  • The big picture- Andy Millar, Natural England
  • Regenerative Farming- Stuart Mayhew, Old Hall Farm
  • Wild East- Argus Gathorne-Hardy
  • Living Landscape- Nigel Boldero, Project Manager
  • Q/A’s and panel discussion- next steps- including Jeremy Buxton from Eve’s Hill Farm, Booton.

The event – which is free- runs from 10am – 4pm and light refreshments will be available throughout the day. Postcode NR10 4QE

All are welcome!


Eco-anxiety: climate change affects our mental health – here’s how to cope

Matthew Adams– Principal Lecturer in Psychology, University of Brighton

A climate protest in Canada.
A climate protest in Ontario, Canada. Ali Jabber/Shutterstock

As a psychologist, I have been researching, writing and talking about psychological and social responses to climate change for over ten years. An increasingly common response appears to be extreme worry.

The University of Bath recently published the results of its 2023 Climate Action Survey. Out of almost 5,000 respondents, 19% of students and 25% of staff said they were “extremely worried” about climate change, while 36% and 33% stated they were “very worried”. Climate worry was higher compared with results from the previous year’s survey.

In 2021, a global survey of how children and young people felt about climate change found similarly high levels of worry. Most of the 10,000 participants reported feelings of sadness, anxiety, anger, powerlessness, helplessness and guilt.

This phenomenon is called eco-anxiety, and it’s no surprise that so many people suffer from it. Wherever we are, more of us are now starting to experience the effects of the climate crisis in some way, whether this be drought, food shortages, flooding or extreme weather. Calling the climate crisis a crisis has also gone mainstream after years of being on the margins, and is now front and centre of wildlife documentaries, films, news media and celebrity culture.

Eco-anxiety can’t be ‘fixed’

Being worried or anxious about the climate and ecological crisis is a reasonable and predictable response to a dangerous situation. We should expect an increase in distress and complex emotional responses.

This is an important point for me and many other psychologists and psychotherapists that engage with the climate crisis as a profound societal and psychological challenge. It means that we should be wary of trying to accurately measure distress-related responses like eco-anxiety as individual traits.

When we do, the issue too easily becomes about the individual and the solution to fix them. This is often done by helping them adapt to reality through therapy and even medication.

But in framing the problem this way, we collectively engage in a form of denial. Can we, in good conscience, come up with “tips” for dealing with eco-anxiety if they are only aimed at finding ways to make the bad feelings go away and ignore their source?

I think we can. Distress can be overwhelming and debilitating. We do need to find ways to manage it both individually and collectively, while recognising that eco-anxiety is, in many ways, a “healthy” response.

Here are some tips for coping with eco-anxiety whenever the despair gets too much.

1. Acknowledge difficult emotions

Remind yourselves that anxiety and other emotions reflect a healthy psychological response to the fact that we are living in a time when so much of what we accept about the nature of a good life, progress, and what the future holds is unravelling.

By acknowledging these difficult emotions in yourself and others, you are less likely to engage in denial and defence mechanisms. These mechanisms include minimising the scale of the problem, blaming others and deepening support for opposing viewpoints.

The counterproductive nature of these mechanisms in our ability to collectively deal with societal problems is well-documented. For example, if everyone redirects the responsibility of climate action to others, then climate solutions are unlikely to get much traction.

A figure showing the different discourses that result in delayed climate action.
Discourses of climate delay. Léonard Chemineau, CC BY-NC-ND

2. Recognise that it’s normal to feel overwhelmed

Doing things that reduce your carbon footprint is a common response to eco-anxiety. This might include recycling more or buying goods with reduced packaging. It can also be a stepping stone to other, more substantial lifestyle shifts like eating less meat or avoiding flying.

Much of this behaviour happens socially, so it can create conversations with others and shift social norms. The more we break the collective silence around the reality of the climate crisis, the more likely we are to see it as a shared problem. This in turn is the basis for political engagement and imagining a different kind of future.

But it is important to recognise that it is normal to feel overwhelmed both by the difficulty of removing ourselves from existing carbon-intensive lifestyle choices, such as shopping, holidays, driving, flying and buying stuff, and by the lack of visible results on a wider scale that follow from the changes we might already be making.

There is a long history of vested interests asserting the mantra of personal responsibility in maintaining the status quo. From those pushing tobacco to fossil fuel companies, a key strategic emphasis has been to “blame the consumer”, such as the endorsement of “tips” for reducing individual consumption.

This focus deflects from the need for bigger economic, social and structural change. After all, a structural problem requires a structural solution, not an individual one.

3. You’re not alone

It is best to think of eco-anxiety as something that we share, both collectively and culturally. We are in the midst of a planetary problem, with an accompanying planetary-scale emotional charge. You are tapping into what millions of other people are feeling too, however difficult it is to express.

In fact, as American climatologist Michael E. Mann has long argued, if you want to think about effective individual behaviour change, then contributing to collective pressure for bigger policy changes is the most useful thing you can do. This starts by sharing our concerns and connecting with others.

A person holding up a banner that reads:
Talking about your concerns with others is a good start. AndriiKoval/Shutterstock

One final tip. Never lose sight of why you care so much in the first place. Eco-anxiety stems from biophilia – a love of all life.

So slow down, keep noticing nature and voicing what you care about. Whatever loss we are already mourning, whatever we are scared of losing, there is still a world out there to care for.


How just walking around – even when accompanied by an adult – is empowering for children

Holly Weir– Researcher in Architecture and Cities, University of Westminster

The 15-minute city has, in recent months, become the focus of conspiracy theories. Politicians and pundits have described it variously as “an international socialist concept”, a “dystopian plan” and a surveillance tool “that would make Pyongyang envious”.

Quite what this longstanding urban planning idea actually results in, however, has been somewhat overlooked. A 15-minute city simply means having neighbourhoods in which residents get to do all they need to do within 15 minutes, on foot, from their home. In other words, it encourages daily active travel.

Urban planners and epidemiologists alike use the term “active travel” to refer to walking and cycling as means of transport. Research has long shown that encouraging it is beneficial for both the natural environment and the health of the people who live in it.

In a recent study, I looked at the benefits that active travel brings for children. I found that walking through their neighbourhoods – close to home – can empower young people, giving them a greater sense of control and autonomy. This can have a positive impact on their wellbeing.

A child's handwriting on a form.
Children taking part in the study completed travel diaries. Holly Weir, CC BY-NC

How children use their neighbourhoods

In 2019, I spent four months walking around a small part of Hackney, in east London, with 17 primary-school pupils. I wanted to find out how they use their neighbourhood – how well they know the area, where they like to go, and to what extent they’re able to move around by themselves.

A child's drawing depicting the seasons in four parts.
They documented their walking experiences. Holly Weir, CC BY-NC

The children, aged between nine and ten, were from three different schools with small catchment areas, which ensured they lived close by. They acted as my guides, taking me on walks around where they live, showing me where they liked to go and where they wanted to but couldn’t yet.

They also completed travel diaries and took photographs of their neighbourhoods. And back in the classroom, they marked everything up on a map.

Map with pen marks
Each child’s travel area was mapped out. Holly Weir, CC BY-NC

Eva (all names have been changed to maintain anonymity) had been allowed out alone since she was seven. She said:

The reason [my mum] let me go at age seven is because if you don’t go outside then when you’re older you won’t be used to not staying without your mum. For example, or if your mum dies you won’t be used to walking outside so my mum let me go outside when I was younger so I got used to it.

Rowan, meanwhile, was only allowed to explore a relatively small area. Yet his descriptions of biking around the block, playing ball games with his friends and hanging out on top of the bike shed – “We just sit on them all day long” – suggested a strong sense of autonomy and empowerment, despite his always being in the vicinity of a supervising adult.

A map with a large colourful area.
The travel areas varied in size. Holly Weir, CC BY-ND

Marianna, by contrast, was allowed to travel slightly further on her own, but she had much less control and autonomy over her journeys.

I’m allowed to go up that street and go to the grocery store. And I’m allowed to go to the newsagent. But nowhere else.

Others expressed frustration at their lack of freedom. Zaidee didn’t want to play outside her home by herself. She did however want to go to her friend’s house down the road. She was upset at having to wait for her mother to be able to go with her.

Because the only reason I can’t go sometimes is because my mum doesn’t want to take me there and pick me back up.

A map with a large colourful area.
The areas covered where the children went without an adult. Holly Weir, CC BY-ND

For Sophia, her parents’ reluctance to take her to the park was similarly frustrating.

I hardly ever go to the park much as my parents are always too bored and tired to go, which makes me really frustrated and they just want me to finish my homework on time.

Why autonomy matters

Independence is the ultimate goal in terms of a child’s development into adulthood. The degree to which children move around independently, and the distances they cover, is in decline across the globe.

This is particularly the case in the UK, a country known to be more risk averse than, say, Germany or Japan. A national survey done by the UK department for transport in 2021 found that 43% of primary-school children travel to school by car and that just 4% travel to school independently.

It is generally accepted in the UK that by the time a child is in their final year of primary school (ten or 11 years old) they should be able to travel to school on their own safely. But this does not always happen. Even in secondary school, only 21% of children across the UK are travelling independently, and 37% are still driven to school.

Active travel has, of course, previously been shown to be important for children’s overall wellbeing. My findings provide a clearer understanding of why that is: it increases the amount of control that children have over their movements around their neighbourhood.

A map with a large colourful area.
Exploring their area on foot gave the children a sense of autonomy and initiative. Holly Weir, CC BY-ND

The children I spoke with did not always need to be independent or unsupervised to gain this empowerment and sense of control. In fact, for some, being physically independent came with a sense of loss. As Ashok put it to one of his friends:

You should really be happy that your mum drops you off. Because I miss that time with my mum and dad.

In what psychologists call self-determination theory, autonomy is used as a measure of wellbeing. I found that more than independence, children need to feel autonomous: to have a sense of control, initiative and ownership over their actions. This they acquire by not being part of what Dutch urban geographer Karsten Lia calls “the backseat generation” – just sitting in the back of a car.

Walking – to school, to the park and further afield – is beneficial for everyone. For parents, it makes the transition to their children going to school on their own easier. And for children it builds confidence. They gain in knowledge, navigational skills and richer experiences.


Britain’s wild woods are under threat and we’re running out of time to save them

Mary Gagen– Professor of Physical Geography, Swansea University

The UK has a strange relationship with its woodlands. Trees and woods form part of the national identity, yet with only about 13% tree cover, it is one of the least wooded countries in Europe.

Ancient woodland – defined as those areas that have been continuously wooded since the year 1600 in England and Wales and 1750 in Scotland – is the UK’s most biodiverse woodland habitat type, and the best at storing carbon, yet only covers 2.5% of the UK’s land area. The trees might be old, but it is the undisturbed soil that gives the designation “ancient” and which allows rare plants and animals to flourish.

However, these remnant ancient woodlands are under constant threat. The Woodland Trust has recorded almost 1,000 ancient woods damaged or permanently lost since it began tracking them in 1999. Only 7% of the UK’s woodlands are in a state of ecological health.

Map of Britain showing tree cover in green
More white than green: woodland cover in Great Britain 2018. ONS

This woeful picture seems at odds with the fact that native deciduous species, such as oak, run through the UK’s sense of nationhood. Quercus robur is boldly given the common name “English Oak”, for instance, despite the tree being native to most of Europe. And fabled “wildwoods”, the woodlands which spread after the retreat of the ice sheets at the end of the last ice age, are fixed in the imagination as “natural” woodscape.

This odd relationship, of simultaneously adoring and denuding woodlands perhaps comes from a millennia-long history of managing and using woods for their timber.

The woods that built Britain

It is extremely unlikely that there is a single patch of woodland left in the UK that has not, at some point in its history, been managed by humans for resources. When we look through the gnarled trunks of an area of ancient woodland now, we are looking back in time, through vital hunting grounds, to periods when the trees were managed to supply the English navy with ship building materials.

A large oak tree
The plus 800-year-old Major Oak may have harboured Robin Hood. Its numerous thick branches are more useful for wildlife than shipbuilding. Kelvin Stewart / shutterstock

In early medieval times, these woodlands were highly prized, and largely under crown ownership. They would have been managed by pollarding and coppicing. Pollarding involves regularly felling the top of the tree so that new shoots grow, producing small timber, fuel and feed for animals.

The regular cutting promotes branch rejuvenation such that pollarded oaks reach a great age – if you see an old tree with multiple large trunks, it was probably pollarded. Coppicing is a similar process but the cuts are made back to the ground level.

But big naval powers relied on wooden ships, and ships were becoming bigger. In 1510 it took around 600 oaks to build the Mary Rose, the pride of Henry VIII’s fleet, but 150 years later it took 5,500 oaks to build HMS Victory. This meant the Royal Navy began to demand more wood, including oak trees with longer and straighter trunks, and oak forests came to be primarily managed for this sort of timber.

In 1698, an act of parliament made it illegal to pollard trees in royal forests. Naval surveyors would visit woodlands and leave the “kings mark”, an arrow etched into the trunk of any suitable tree.

It is precisely this managed history that makes remaining fragments of ancient woodland so important today. The UK is thought to be home to more very old oaks than the whole of the rest of Europe, and these trees, which are likely to have been pollarded or coppiced in the past, contain rot holes and decaying wood along with living tissue and so provide a variety of habitats.

Ancient oaks support more than 2,000 associated species including 600 which depend heavily on oak alone. This is why ancient woodland is defined in government planning guidance as an irreplaceable habitat.

Future forests

The government is targeting 16.5% woodland cover in England by 2050 (it’s currently 12.8%). But that target is already below what’s needed to meet climate goals, and does not prioritise natural woodland over monoculture plantations of non-native trees.

It’s not easy to achieve a woodland cover target while also restoring nature, hitting climate targets, and supporting the needs of the timber industry. Getting woodland planting right requires the right policy and legislation, nursery stocks of appropriate tree species, and many more foresters (the government has launched free forestry courses to address a skills shortage).

The UK is currently planting around 3,300 hectares (33km²) of woodland per year. Woodland cover of 16.5% by 2050 would require three times more: 10,000 hectares (100km²) per year.

If given space to regenerate, the UK’s woodlands can help address the triple challenge of averting dangerous climate change, while restoring nature and securing the wellbeing and prosperity of a growing population.

Yet the biggest risk comes from a rush to plant new trees without first protecting those woodlands that remain, and without considering what types of woodland will offer nature the best chance to thrive.


Born connected, stay connected?

Childhood is often seen as a time to begin building connection to nature. A lot of attention is given to getting children out into nature, fostering …

Born connected, stay connected?

Children and teenagers can carry out valuable wildlife research – here’s how

Maria Aristeidou– Lecturer in Technology Enhanced Learning, The Open University

The environment is in crisis. Young people are calling for environmental action and requesting more education about the environment and the climate emergency. They are also looking at what they can do to tackle climate change.

Together with colleagues, I have found that children can make a valuable contribution to research about the environment through citizen science projects – where members of the public help scientists with research.

In one project, we looked at young people’s involvement with iNaturalist, a popular nature app. The young participants, aged between five and 19, used the app independently or during and after attending events organised by the Natural History Museum of London, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

The app lets people upload photos of organisms and add information, such as location, date and time. If this information is added, then the photo is considered “verifiable”.

The verifiable photos that are considered of good quality (as agreed by the iNaturalist community) are labelled as “research grade”. The research-grade contributions are shared with the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, which allows open access to data about all types of life on Earth. This data is frequently used by biodiversity researchers.

Making a contribution

We found that the young people using the app contributed to quality wildlife monitoring at the same rate as adults, with the support of iNaturalist’s online community. Their observations were of research grade and therefore potentially valuable for wildlife research.

What’s more, wildlife can benefit from young volunteers’ contributions. We found that young people tend to observe and identify different species than adults. These tend to be smaller species, such as insects, mushrooms and spiders. Although this may be because of young people’s personal preferences, it may also depend on their different skills, opportunities and available instruments – for example, whether they have high-resolution cameras.

Although people usually take part in citizen science projects because of their broad environmental concerns and concerns for others, they also develop scientific knowledge and skills, such as about the scientific process, and topic-specific knowledge – for example, learning about and collecting data on endangered species – as a result.

We contacted teachers who engage their pupils in citizen science projects. We wanted to understand whether citizen science can also help young people engage in environmental science issues. Teachers confirmed the learning benefits for young people, adding that young people also maintain an ongoing engagement with science once they are involved. A secondary school science teacher said:

I think it is just a different way to do science, to help the students to be more engaged in science. Talk to them about real problems they can see in their everyday life, so it is not about the idea, it is just really a different way to teach science in the classroom.

Another science teacher pointed out the ownership that the young people had over their scientific learning through citizen science:

And then they’ll [the students] be the ones who archive that, they’ll be the ones that then decide amongst each other which ones to look at in detail and try and work out the sequencing relationship between those samples… so it’s all about them making the decisions amongst themselves in that larger [scientific] collaboration.

Learning by doing

Other research I carried out with colleagues confirmed these findings. This study looked at young people’s participation in Zooniverse, a citizen science website.

The website invites volunteers to participate in scientific projects by completing tasks. These may include classifying pictures of animals, transcribing historical wildlife data or annotating animals in camera trap images.

The young scientists reported that they had gained environmental science learning, such as understanding more about their local wildlife population numbers. They felt they were experts, and were recognised as experts by others. They went on to use their science knowledge elsewhere: writing a blog to share their knowledge or going on to study life sciences at university.

Young woman in nature
Young people who get involved in biodiversity projects may go on to use this knowledge elsewhere, such as at university. Ground Picture/Shutterstock

However, young people who had an existing interest and experience with science activities were more likely to learn about the environment on Zooniverse. Also, young participants who took part in reflection and discussion activities were more likely to show higher levels of environmental learning compared with those who just completed the tasks.

Teachers said that they could better help young people successfully participate in environmental research if they have access to the right resources.

This includes guidelines and support on how to implement citizen science activities in their classrooms. This support can be in the form of professional development programmes, or tools, such as the nQuire platform, which guides and enables participation in different stages of scientific research.

Young people can help to advance wildlife research and in doing so, help the environment. But to do so, they need to be empowered with the proper knowledge and skills through well-designed educational programmes, and receive the right support from the research community.