When I was 6 or 7 my brother and I discovered some rotten planks inside the canopy of our neighbour’s old spruce tree. This hideout fascinated us and renovating it became our top priority. Unfortunately, the activity was cut short when our parents discovered it and deemed the project unsafe. As an alternative my dad carefully constructed a ‘treehouse’ for us in the corner of the garden but in reality it was more of a solid little house on stilts. Beautiful though it was, with little to add to or adapt, it didn’t catch our attention for long. Instead, we were quickly diverted by the discovery of a hollow tree in the messy, overgrown field behind our house.
The willow tree, which was once struck by lightning, opened up in the centre creating an easy way to climb on two levels.
To get to it you had to scramble over the garden wall and then fight your way through brambles and a patch of nettles. Wellies, long trousers and a wacking stick were essential, especially in the height of summer when the weeds grew tall around us. Sometimes together with my brother or friends and sometimes alone, I created a world in and around the old tree. The place captured my imagination and I eventually paid my brother £5 for full ownership rights.
The various branches, which were more like platforms in the tree itself, were transformed into a library, a kitchen and living room. We diverted the stream running alongside it with an old pipe and created a ‘sink’ for drinking and doing the washing up. We made a pulley system for taking items up to the higher branches using an old bucket, and furnished the rooms with mats and a roof made from long grass. There was both a formal entrance, which required long-enough-legs and some climbing skill, and a backdoor, which involved sliding down one of the branches into a particularly boggy part of the field. We even created a ‘toilet’ under a nearby apple tree to eliminate the need to go back up to the house.
At the bottom of the field, there was a small dump where a local developer periodically burnt rubbish. The dump was like treasure-trove to us and our tree was full bits foraged from its ashy remains; bed springs, old records and broken furniture became prized possessions. There was always work to be done and the passing of time was usually only noticed by our mother calling us in for dinner. This secret, child-only hideout became the place I would spend almost every weekday afternoon for the next five or so years of my life.
At school a similar process occurred. During break-times, those of us who didn’t play football, were drawn to the trees at the edge of the playing field; the forbidden places where the teachers could not see us. We created fairy houses in the tree roots and constructed small communities, drawn out with sticks and bark. In these secret corners we wished to play uninterrupted by adult sensibilities. Our imagination flourished.
This early experience of child-led outdoor play has not only informed how I relate to nature, it also motivates me to strive for a world which is more sustainable and ecologically connected.
However, routine experience of nature has now become the exception to the norm (Cox et al. 2017). As urban populations increase, a shift in experience from natural ecosystems to urban environments has occurred. This decline in an embodied experience of nature threatens not only human well-being but is likely to impact our ‘empathy for other species and our desire to help conservation efforts’ (Coles, Millman, & Flannigan, 2013).
I wish that future generations of children will be able to share memories like mine regardless of whether they live in rural or urban communities. With my masters thesis I aim to explore how the design of urban outdoor environments can enable children to form authentic connections to the natural world, in the hope that in the coming years it will also become part of their motivation to protect it.
Cox, D. T. C., Hudson, H. L., Shanahan, D. F., Fuller, R. A., & Gaston, K. J. (2017). The rarity of direct experiences of nature in an urban population. Landscape and Urban Planning, 160, 79–84. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2016.12.006
Coles, R., Millman, Z., & Flannigan, J. (2013). Urban landscapes – everyday environmental encounters, their meaning and importance for the individual. Urban Ecosystems, 16(4), 819–839. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11252-013-0327-y