Two recent statements from ministers have set me thinking.
Environment Minister Liz Truss has said she wants children to learn the proper names for animals and plants. While she has been mocked for this, it’s not a bad point. Engagement with the natural world matters, it fosters a sense of connection to nature.
Meanwhile, the Health Minister Jeremy Hunt has been talking about the impact obesity has on health services, and the need to address this in children in particular. He has been focusing on sport, but I can’t help but think there are other routes.
The problem with forcing children into sport is that it can put them off participation later in life. Personally, it was a good ten years out of school before I started to derive pleasure from any form of sporting activity.
However, if we combine the issues raised by both Mr Hunt and Ms Truss, there is another solution that presents itself.
Green Exercise is something we have touched on many times before. It has proven benefits for both physical and mental wellbeing. And if you are out walking in the world, it presents the perfect opportunity to learn those animal and tree names.
If we really want to make the next generation more physically active, we must escape the very 1950s notion that this means sport, running around on the playing fields playing football, rugby and hockey. This only ends up turning a large proportion off an active lifestyle.
Instead, we must embrace the idea that most interests can be given an outdoor component, then partner schools with bodies that can provide opportunities.
You have kids interested in history? Field archaeology (something I was involved in from the age of ten).
Science and nature? Naturalists clubs and field trips.
Mathematics? Plenty of mathematical principles are testable, and indeed expressed, in nature.
Languages, economics, geography, art, all can lend themselves readily to outdoor learning.
We must start to see the outdoors as an extension of the classroom, not just a compartmentalised place for sport. By doing so, we can inculcate physical activity into everyday life.
It requires inter-departmental cooperation from government, and it requires will from all concerned. But it’s not expensive. The beauty of the natural world is that it is just there.
If we want an active population, we must do it in more subtle ways. The very word ‘exercise’ puts a lot of people off. But by embedding an active lifestyle into day-to-day working, almost incidentally, we can address the problem.
Thanks, by the way, go to Rebekah Higgitt, Alison Atkin, and Cat Rushmore for a degree of inspiration in a twitter conversation a couple of weeks back.