Nature’s Playground: The woman inspiring Irish modern children to love the outdoors

Friday 24 July 2015, Irish Independent

Published 17/06/2015 | 13:40

The Irish children of Body & Soul Open Gallery 7
The Irish children of Body & Soul

If you go down to the woods today, you might just find nature awareness mentor Ciara Hinksman. She tells Katie Byrne why she believes Mother Nature is the best teacher, and why she’s bringing her Forest School initiative to the Body & Soul music festival.

Think back to your fondest memory of childhood play - a flash from the past that you can remember vividly. It’s likely that you’ve recalled an outdoor adventure rather than an indoor one. It’s also likely that it involves fields, streams and forest as opposed to the living room floor.

But what about our own children? Will they be more likely to remember the day they were bought an iPad rather than the day they built a den? The evidence doesn’t look promising.

A recent study from Early Childhood Ireland found that the vast majority of parents in the 1,700 families they interviewed agreed that they had more freedom and more time outdoors than their children do.

Today’s children are digital natives. Any free time they have away from the computer is generally spent on the extracurricular activity merry-go-round - and rarely do these high-achieving endeavours involve rambling around in the great outdoors.

Ciara Hinksman, the founder of Earth Force Eduction, wants to change that. She believes the great outdoors is an essential antidote for young people and her company provides what they call ‘nature connection experiences’ for children from the ages of 5 upwards.

Nature awareness mentor Ciara Hinksman Open Gallery 7
Nature awareness mentor Ciara Hinksman

The programmes vary according to age group but a typical summer camp includes fire-making, den-building and nature art.

“When we allow ourselves to be fully absorbed in tasks out in nature, from bushcraft to art-making, we reconnect and reintegrate exciting parts of ourselves that are both new and instinctively familiar,” she says.

The physiological benefits of outdoor adventuring are obvious, while the psychological benefits are profound. Ciara calls it “invisible learning”.

“They’re learning a lot of things because nature is very good at meeting them where they’re at,” she explains.

“A kid that isn’t very secure may learn to make a den. That’s a great way for them to create boundaries or feel protected, or to become confident that they can begin something and finish it.

“They’re also given time for reflection during the day - we call it ‘healing through play’. Mother Nature is the best teacher.”

Claire believes playing in nature is vital for developing resourcefulness and initiative in later life and cites author Richard Louv.

“He talks about ‘virtual house arrest’,” she explains. “We have our children brought right back into the living room all the time. But if they’re not out exploring, where are they going to learn the skills to navigate unstructured time?”

Nature awareness mentor Ciara Hinksman Open Gallery 7
Nature awareness mentor Ciara Hinksman

Louv, the author of Last Child in the Woods, is arguably one of the most influential writers on this topic.

He coined the phrase ‘nature-deficit disorder’, which, though not a medical diagnosis, is described as the human cost of alienation from nature. According to Louv, symptoms include lack of empathy, behavioural difficulties, isolation, obesity, lack of physical co-ordination and arrested intelligence. He also believes that when we are truly present in nature, “we use all our senses at the same time, which is the optimum state of learning”.

I WONDER if Claire can immediately differentiate between an outdoorsy child and a child that spends four hours in front of their video game console every night. “Definitely,” she answers at once.

“{The latter} have a completely different countenance. Their eyes are dull. Their body language is more enclosed and introverted and their outlook is more depressed.”

And children that spend a lot of time outdoors? “Their eyes are bright. They’ve got an aliveness about them. They are fully engaged and want to explore the natural world. They are quick to laugh and all of their senses are sharpened.”

Earth Force Education is part of what is slowly becoming a global movement. Groups like Project Wild Thing and Kids Go Wild want to reconnect children with the natural world before the digital world becomes all-encompassing.

“There is a big movement towards people wanting more nature time for their children because they are realising it’s missing,” explains Ciara.

Often all she needs to do is plant the seed. She recounts a story about a 10-year-old girl she met when she ran a day-long course on organic farming and woodland and river habitats with Wicklow County Council.

“I went to gather some firewood and

some of the kids opted to come with me. I had to walk down a smaller incline to gather branches and this girl was terrified. She said ‘I have to go back. You can’t walk down there - it’s too steep’.

“I said, ‘okay, why don’t you try it? You can do it if you try to walk sideways’.

“‘That’s the difference between me and you’ she answered - she was a pretty intelligent young girl - ‘I don’t get to spend time outdoors. When my Mum wants me to get some outdoor time she opens the windows all the way to let the fresh air in’.”

Some of the schoolchildren that Ciara met that day came back to do a summer camp with her six months later. She was surprised to notice that the timid girl was among them.

“She made a beeline for me when I went to get the firewood,” recalls Ciara. “And she walked straight down the hill, navigating difficult terrain. She then told me that she had been to the woods six times with her parents since the last time I met her.”

The Irish children of Body & Soul Open Gallery 7
The Irish children of Body & Soul

“You see, we’re just doing our best for our kids,” continues Ciara. “This generation of parents are trying to give their kids all the things they didn’t have. And from my own experience, maybe there was too much freedom in the past.”

However, she concedes that there is a “culture of fear” among some of today’s parents, who panic over everything from ‘stranger danger’ to the fear of a child finding a disused hypodermic needle.

Children don’t engage when they’re scared, explains Ciara, who is also careful not to allow fear-mongering to overshadow the talks she gives on climate change and sustainable energy.

“Kids find it pretty scary so instead of this negative train of thought, they just need to be out there having as much fun as possible. As David Sobel says ‘let’s give children a chance to love the Earth before we ask them to save it’.”

CIARA, WHO used to work as an underwriter in the insurance industry, decided to take the road less travelled after completing a three-month long bushcraft and nature awareness course in a forest near Caherciveen in Kerry in 2009.

“I just thought ‘I’ve spent my whole life walking past this and it’s really rich and really important’.”

She’s now on a mission to share her love of nature with the next generation, working with primary schools, community groups and anyone else that appreciates her vision.

This weekend she’ll be bringing her Forest School programme to the Body & Soul festival in Westmeath. It’s a nice fit - Body & Soul is undoubtedly Ireland’s most family-friendly and nature-loving festival, while the forest, which is dotted with sculptures and installations, is the perfect playground for little ones.

“We’ll be creating dream catchers, making charcoal out of willow and carving elder pencils,” explains Ciara.

“What I love about Body & Soul is how it celebrates the artist in nature.

“It makes us believe in nature in new and exciting ways.”

Body & Soul, Ballinlough Castle, Co Westmeath, runs from June 19-21. They have a designated family camping area, tent and Soul Kids programme with all manner of workshops, performances and activities.

For more information, see

For more information on Ciara, see

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