With these gentle tales of nature at its most accessible, Barkham, who writes for the Guardian, is actually asking parents to think critically about our education system, with its narrow focus on academic achievement and testing. He volunteers in a “forest school” nursery, where he sees how an outdoor setting fosters children’s resilience, creativity and mental health. The heroes of this book are a new generation of outdoor educators, who are finding ways to reconnect children with nature in the face of a system that seems wilfully blind to its benefits.
Wild Child, fortunately, is no lefty harangue. Yes, Barkham is a white, middle-class, Norfolk-residing Guardianista (literally; he’s on the payroll) who sends his children to a forest school equivalent. But he is sensitive to this fact and, better still, knows that nature-bashing will win him few converts (and fewer readers). Wisely, he has opted to write a ‘show-not-tell’ style of book — albeit one that explicitly sets out to relate an ‘empowering and hopeful story’ about the benefits of engaging with the outdoors.
Among many superb literary nuggets in the book, there’s a quote from the poet Patrick Kavanagh that highlights the particular relevance of Wild Child to these strange sequestered days: “To know fully one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience.” We have been turned in upon ourselves by the lockdown, forced to do what Barkham does so brilliantly in the book: subjecting a hedge, or a pond, or a garden, to intense scrutiny. Wild Child ends with a selection of more than 60 recommended activities for parents to undertake with their kids in nature, a hugely valuable resource for those of us in need of home-school inspiration. Barkham’s book is both a call to arms and a deep investigation of the benefits of forest schools. More than anything, though, it’s a beautiful meditation on the joy and pain of parenthood, one that had me hugging my own two particularly closely before pushing them out into the rain.