Thursday, 12 June 2014

Children, Collecting Experience, and the Natural Environment

By Lydia Martens, Senior Lecturer in Sociology

I have just completed the end of award report for the British Academy small grant Children, Collecting Experience, and the Natural Environment. The grant provided a budget to conduct ethnographic research on a holiday site on the North West coast of Scotland, during the summer months of 2012 and 2013. My research focused on the informal ways children learn to pay attention whilst being in the outdoor environment of this setting with family members and other children, using it as a resource in the creation of their activities. The research consisted of extensive on-site ethnographic work and focused research with seven families.

The research was intended to allow me to move my established interest in families, children and consumer culture towards the problematic of the environment. The connection between children and nature has, in recent years, very much captured the popular imagination in the UK, with regular newspaper coverage and actions initiated by nature charities (e.g. the National Trust’s Natural Childhood inquiry). In this coverage, contemporary childhood is much lamented, with claims that contemporary British children grow up with substantially fewer opportunities to explore outdoor environments compared with previous generations. These are, in turn, linked to other childhood worries, such as the growth in childhood obesity, the lack in children’s physical activity, children’s ignorance of everything ‘natural’, and the growth of a sedentary mediated consumer culture around the child. It is clear that in these ways of thinking about children and nature, consumption and consumer culture are considered a salient part (if not the actual cause) of ‘the problem’. By contrast, my study suggests that the holiday experience consumed by families on this site actively stimulates the creative engagement of children in and with this outdoor environment, and also contributes in positive ways towards the establishment of family memories and attachments to people, animals and place. It thus brings a rather different perspective to bear on these concerns.

Focusing very much on the ways in which children learn in outdoor settings, my research is significant for highlighting how this type of holiday is not only a source for learning about the social qualities of engaging with other people, important though these are. It is also a source for learning in embodied and moral ways about being in, what is in essence, an environmentally complex outdoor setting, that brings together a beach, rockpools, rocks, the sea, and a surrounding crofting community, in addition to all the creatures and vegetation that also use this location as their habitat. This environment is also subject to highly variable weather conditions, and as such, it is not unlike many other British seaside locations that attract visitors. Whilst the weather has interesting implications for activities on site, including my fieldwork, with invitations to participate in outings that ranged from canoeing trips to rockpooling, this was a fun project for me to do.

I am still thinking about the complex moral and ethical issues that arise from being in the outdoors. A substantial proportion of people on site choose to be here on a yearly basis and are very vocal about their emotional attachment to the landscape and its natural qualities. Observing the interactions of the young and old shows how children are immersed in the ‘nature’ ethics and moralities of their elders and peers. Even so, in the pursuit of fun, it was apparent that care for the environment was not always at the forefront of people’s minds. From a nature conservation perspective, the natural environment of this site is regarded as fragile. This gives rise to the tricky question how people can be in this environment in ways that are sustainable in the long run.

Together with four colleagues (Emma Surman from Keele, Elizabeth Curtis from Aberdeen and Monica Truninger from Lisbon, Portugal), I presented on the findings of this project in the context of a special session we organised on the theme of Children, Consumption and Collecting Experience, at the recent Child & Teen Consumption Conference in Edinburgh.

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