Always looking for animals

Sam, Katy, and Noggs in Africa


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Conserving a childhood outside

We have recently finished watching Stranger Things 2 and it was pretty awesome. The show is homage to classic films from the 1980s like the Goonies. Watching it reminds me of my childhood. No mobile phones, lots of time outside exploring, a group of close friends, bikes, freedom. I lived on short road with a circle at the end. Across the road from our house lived two boys close in age to me. We knocked on each other doors and went out to play. We had bikes and we rode them around and around. We explored the woods, climbed trees, and made forts. I remember the summers when we would play outside until it got too dark to see, the sound of cicadas buzzing in the air. We never fought actual demogorgons but we had lots of our own big and small adventures. Time past, new kids moved to the street and things we’re never quite the same, eventually my family moved away, we grew up. But it made a lasting impression. I’m sure it shaped my career path and my parenting style.

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Research indicates that childhoods like this are disappearing. That we now live in a world where parents are scared to send their kids outside unsupervised. That we live in a playdate society where all play is organized, rather than spontaneous. That children today spend their time in a virtual world, rather than the outdoors. I also read this week that imaginary friends are becoming rarer because of increased screentime which leads to a lack of creativity. In 2001, about half of British kids had imaginary friends and today the number is about 17%.

I’m reading How to Raise a Wild Child by Scott D. Sampson (the paleontologist from Dinosaur Train) and it’s about encouraging kids to get outside again and benefit from nature. It’s pretty good so far but it makes me a bit sad. It’s worrying what this current trend in disconnecting from nature in childhood will mean for future environmental stewardship because often love and respect for nature is fostered from connections built early on. I also find it sad that books like this even need to be written. The first section lays out all the physical and mental benefits of spending time in nature. Scientists have done heaps of research proving that nature is extremely good for us. Of course, it is. The idea that parents don’t encourage their kids to spend time outside or don’t make the effort to be outside with them, seems very foreign to me (but I know, I am the converted!). The idea that we have to teach parents how to spend time outside with children or to send their kids outside seems strange and almost unhuman. No one taught my parents or my grandparents. As kids, we just went outside. Yes, we watched tv but it was limited in my house and that left lots of time for outdoor adventures. All I want to do now is be outside. But I know that outdoorsy people like us are becoming a rare breed so books like this are required and I’m glad that they exist.

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I also just finished rereading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. The story is almost completely set outside and when the characters are inside (like at school or in church), they just want to be outside. Outside is Tom and Huck’s setting for adventures and freedom, something every kid needs.

I hope that our son can have a version of the 1980s / early 1990s style childhood with a gang of neighbourhood kids on bikes. These can’t be extinct yet surely. And if these are heading towards extinction, as conservation biologists, Sam and I are going have to help preserve the outdoor childhood. And Africa has got to the perfect place to do this. We had such adventures outside as kids but with giraffes, zebras, and impalas, it has got to be even better. But wherever you live, if you are a parent, a grandparent, an auntie, or an uncle, I hope you will help conserve this invaluable facet of childhood by taking kids outside. My brother’s family goes birding with their son. My mother-in-law loves taking Noggs to beach. There is nature everywhere. I hope that this will help build a generation who are more environmentally minded. This planet and every living thing on it bloody well needs that.

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Gene-gle Bells

In case you are wondering what to buy someone for Christmas, I have a sciency suggestion. Last year my father-in-law (or bab-in-law as I should call him) bought Sam and I a DNA test each from ancestry.com. My initial reaction was – cool sciencey gift that involves bodily fluid and posting it to a lab, sounds fun. I was excited so we posted our vials of spit off and waited. As scientists, we have posted vials of monkey poo across the world so spit felt relatively tame and required a lot less paperwork.

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After awhile we received our results and found out where in the world our ancestors came from. There was a snazzy map and the results was interesting but not too surprising – no hidden Japanese ninja ancestry sadly. I thought that was it for my present. But it wasn’t. The DNA test also reveals how you are related to other people who have also taken a DNA test. I ended up being contacted by someone who I didn’t even know I was related to and helping them to determine who their biological parents were through sleuth work, DNA connections, and genealogical information gathered by my parents. Being part of this person’s journey to figure out where they came from was an amazing experience and was one my highlights of 2017. It also helped me to learn more about my family tree and become more interested in genealogy. So spitting in a tube is my present suggestion for 2017. Go science and Santa.

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Our spiky acacia Christmas tree in Zimbabwe