Rewild the Child

A week in the countryside is worth three months in a classroom.

by George Monbiot

What is the best way to knacker a child’s education? Force him or her to spend too long in the classroom.

An overview of research into outdoor education by King’s College London found that children who spend time learning in natural environments “perform better in reading, mathematics, science and social studies.”(1) Exploring the natural world “makes other school subjects rich and relevant and gets apathetic students excited about learning.”

Fieldwork in the countryside, a British study finds, improves long-term memory(2). Dozens of papers report sharp improvements in attention when children are exposed to wildlife and the great outdoors(3). Teenaged girls taken on a three-week canoeing trip in the US remained, even 18 months later, more determined, more prepared to speak out and show leadership and more inclined to challenge conventional notions of femininity(3).

Studies of the programmes run by the Wilderness Foundation UK, which takes troubled teenagers into the mountains, found that their self-control, self-awareness and behaviour all improved(4,5,6). Ofsted, the schools inspection service, reports that getting children out of the classroom raises “standards, motivation, personal development and behaviour.”(7)

Last week I saw the evidence for myself. With the adventure learning charity WideHorizons, I spent two days taking a group of 10 year-olds from a deprived borough in London rockpooling and roaming the woods in mid-Wales(8). Many of them had never been to the countryside before and had never seen the sea.

I was nervous before I met them. I feared that our differences might set us apart. I thought they might be bored and indifferent. But my fears evaporated as soon as we reached the rockpools.

Within a few minutes, I had them picking up crabs and poking anenomes. When I showed that they could eat live prawns out of the net they were horrified, but curiosity and bravado conquered disgust, and one after another they tried them. Raw prawns are as sweet as grapes: some of the children were soon shovelling them into their mouths. I don’t think there was anyone in the group who managed not to fall into the water. But no one complained.

In the woods the next day we paddled in a stream, rolled down a hill, ate blackberries, tasted mushrooms, had helicopter races with sycamore keys, explored an ant’s nest, broke sticks and collected acorns. Most had never done any of these things before, but they needed no encouragement: the exhilaration with which they explored the living world seemed instinctive. I realised just how little contact they’d had when I discovered that none of them had seen a nettle or knew what happens if you touch it.

But what hit me hardest was this. One boy stood out: he had remarkable powers of observation and intuition. When I mentioned this to his teacher, her reply astonished me: “I must tell him. It’s not something he will have heard before.” When a child as bright and engaged as this is struggling at school, the problem lies not with the child but with the education system. We foster and reward a narrow set of skills.

The governments of this country accept the case for outdoor learning. In 2006 the departments for children and schools, culture and the environment signed a manifesto which says the following: “We strongly support the educational case for learning outside the classroom. If all young people were given these opportunities we believe it would make a significant contribution to raising achievement.”(9,10) In 2011, the current government published a white paper proposing “action to get more children learning outdoors, removing barriers and increasing schools’ abilities to teach outdoors”(11).

So what happened? Massive cuts. The BBC reports that 95% of outdoor education centres have had their entire local authority funding cut(12). Instead of being encouraged to observe and explore and think and develop, children are being treated like geese in a foie gras farm. Confined to the classroom, stuffed with rules and facts, dragooned into endless tests: there could scarcely be a better formula for ensuring that they become bored and disaffected(13,14).

When children are demonised by the newspapers, they are often described as feral. But feral is what children should be: it means released from captivity or domestication. Those who live in crowded flats, surrounded by concrete, mown grass and other people’s property, cannot escape their captivity without breaking the law. Games and explorations that are seen as healthy in the countryside are criminalised in the cities. Children who have never visited the countryside – 50% in the UK according to WideHorizons – live under constant restraint(15).

Why shouldn’t every child spend a week in the countryside every term? Why shouldn’t everyone be allowed to develop the kind of skills the children I met were learning: rock climbing, gorge scrambling, caving, night walking, ropework and natural history? Getting wet and tired and filthy and cold, immersing yourself, metaphorically and literally, in the natural world: surely by these means you discover more about yourself and the world around you than you do during three months in a classroom. What kind of government would deprive children of this experience?


  1. Kings College, London. April 2011. Understanding the diverse benefits of learning in natural environments. Commissioned by Natural England.
  2. Stuart Nundy, 2001. Raising achievement through the environment: the case for fieldwork and field centres. National Association of Field Studies Officers. Cited by Kings College, London, as above.
  3. Many of them are listed here: William Bird, 2007.  Natural Thinking: investigating the links between the natural environment, biodiversity and mental health. Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
  7. Ofsted, 2nd October 2008. Learning outside the classroom: How far should you go?
  11. Defra, 2011. The Natural Choice: securing the value of nature. White Paper.


  1. Powerful stuff, brilliantly written. It is something I have believed for a long, long time and it is wonderful to see it written down, with evidence to back it up – the experience of the children from WideHorizons brought a tear to my eye. Keep shouting about this, it’s too important not to. Compliments on a great article.

  2. Great article, children instinctively get permaculture and love the ways of nature, it takes 10-12 years of schooling( probably more honestly called wage slave programming) to beat out of them Imo.
    I have tried to plant gardens at my children’s school and found myself in a situation which is highly political and full of people terrified to make any sort of decision that is the slightest bit controversial- this was about 5 years ago I became frustrated and stopped wasting my time. The children are our future so I will try again hoping that the school system is a little more flexible this time.

  3. A great article on an educating system that must be actioned! I can still taste the boredom, 35 years later..

  4. I remember a British friend who was in the London Blitz during WWII. Children would take buses out to the hedgerows to collect rose hips, which were then returned to pharmacies in London which processed them into Vitamin C syrup for every one. They participated in saving the nation from one of its worst threats in history. Does it take a war for children to feel like they are part and parcel of their Nation.

    I also remember the Presidential campaign of J.F. Kennedy. I was on Wall Street in N.Y. one day when his vehicle came down the street in a ticker tape parade. “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” That day, I saw 12 year olds with JFK stickers campaigning on the NY streets.

    If children are restrained into boring school programs instead of participating in the ebbs and flows of National issues, what can we expect when they replace us?

  5. School takes away the wonder and intuition in us. It brings us to this competitive, wonder lacking nature, that is totally unnatural. As you continue into high school especially. With all the technology, and realizations, scientists determine diseases, disabilities. BUT I ASK WHAT ARE THE CAUSES OF ALL THIS? IT may be the way we are living… in fact IT IS. Let’s find the tools and innovate our system ourselves, if governing bodies cannot. We can access the technology, and living that we need to integrate into our lives. Wonderful article. Thanks for being and sharing!

  6. This is one of the reasons we sold it all and moved to the country to raise and school our kids at home where they can run & be free and even wild! ;)
    Working in the garden, hauling wood, going on walks, collecting bugs and leaves and sticks are all a natural part of life and our schooling.
    Actual sit at a table with books and papers only takes a short part of the day. And as a former school teacher I can say, my kids are miles (kilometers?) ahead of kids in the city schools I worked at.

  7. This is a good thought provoking piece, but I have to say I am still for school. My children both go to school in Wales and there are things about the institution that bother me but,they are learning important things like math and english and science, that I don’t have the time to teach them, having to work to eat and all. School children are also getting the chance to spend time with their peers rather than just a bunch of adults telling them what to do. Its true that indoctrination does take place, but parents can ‘de-program’ by talking to their children about what happens at school everyday and give our own opinions on the matter and go even further by asking the child what s/he thinks about it, teaching her/him to question and consider rather than follow and obey. My kids spend half a day each week in Forest School whatever the weather, there is an actual small forest with a log circle around a fire pit and wigwams, there is also a beautiful meadow with a beehive and finally a pond. From March onwards children grow some food and lots of sunflowers in beds outside each classroom door and in autumn there is a wonderful festival that ends with the kids offering up the produce at harvest mass. The school runs charity events to raise money for a poor school in zanzibar with whom they are twinned, the school encourages children to recycle, collects rainwater in butts for the gardens, has a greenhouse in a separate larger allotment space run by volunteer parents that goes into school meals, the kids eat ‘weird’ foods (not burgers) from all around the world to gain new experiences, they go to the theatre and learn music and art and all sorts of wonderful things. Things that the majority of children in my estate would not have a chance in hell to ever experience had they not attended school. Furthermore, I don’t think children miss out on The Wild because they are spending time in a classroom. Instead of letting my kids sit at home watching tv I take them out walking in town, on the lanes, in the woods, swimming in the streams. On holiday we go camping or to the beach to swim in the ocean. We go to the alotment and once roasted a chicken in an earth pit in our suburban backgarden. We regularly visit RSPB, Cbeebies, Natural Wales and other such websites and do the nature challenges… We are not on a farm (yet), but are also not stuck in concrete, all it takes is a pair of wellies, a good coat and the willingness to spend your free time taking the kids out ‘on adventures’. Our favourites are going on a bear hunt and follwing the gruffalo trail (two children’s books that provide great inspiration for imaginative walks). So, by all means, rewild the child but don’t turn her/him into a cavewo/man.

  8. Jus to say that the above comment was direct at other comments, because Mr Monbiot isn’t saying school is bad, only that children should spend more time in ‘outside’ classes that allow for the natural sciences and the arts to be learnt at origin, rather than ‘on paper’ inside sterile and over crowded classroms.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles

Back to top button