In the 21st century children are constantly warned about the damage humans are doing to the natural world. It’s not surprising then if …
“Lacking direct experience with nature, children begin to associate it with fear and apocalypse, not joy and wonder. “
Last child in the woods by Richard Louv 2005
Our children have less and less direct and meaningful contact with nature and animals. We plan family visits to zoos and farm attractions to let our children ‘experience’ real animals, but these encounters can never provide the thrill of being with an animal in the wild where the human and animal exist on an equal footing. We are spectators.
“The visibility through the glass, the spaces between the bars, or the empty air above the moat, are not what they seem – if they were, then everything would be changed.”
John Berger, Why Look at Animals 1980
But in the 21st century there’s a growing movement to reconnect with nature. ‘Rewilding projects’ are taking place across Europe with the ultimate goal of reintroducing higher species such as wolves, beaver, bears, bison and wild horses to areas from where they have long been absent.
Rewilding is about seeing things differently, and taking a new approach to nature and our place in the midst of it including:
allowing nature to look after itself
helping people to thrive alongside wildlife
securing the good things that nature provides – clean air and water, carbon storage, flood control, amazing experiences
As part of this drive to reconnect with nature there is also a growing interest in ‘Forest Schools’ that aim to help children learn by direct contact with wild nature.
So how is this growing movement being reflected in the media we present to our children? The answer – it very rarely is.
Children’s books are still focusing almost exclusively on animals as cute alternatives to human characters… or as the subject of scientific learning.
The wonder and ‘otherness’ of animals is still largely ignored.
Farm animals in picture books
Following the Second World War, developments in farming practices led to the last vestiges of the traditional rural way of life disappearing.
With new intensive and highly mechanized farming practices, and with the growth of the supermarkets and the food processing industry, the realities of where and how their food is produced, have become more and more concealed from modern children. Most young UK children today would never consider there was any connection between the sausages on their plate and ‘Peppa Pig’.
By the 1960’s children’s illustrated books already portrayed an unrealistic world of happy, healthy and accessible farm animals living in a idealized countryside managed by jolly farmers and their even jollier wives. As a young child I loved this friendly, sunny world where children like me wandered fields and farmyards, and there were always lots of baby animals to cuddle.
Illustration by Cicely Steed from ‘Down on the Farm’ by Enid Blyton published by Samson, Low, Marston & Co Ltd around 1950
The reality of life for the farm animals that fed me and all the other 60’s and ‘70’s children was far, far different, and this is still the case today. But farm animals continue to be depicted in children’s picture books as cute characters that have jolly lives in a lovely countryside.
So does it matter that we try to conceal from our children, the realities of life for millions of animals that we consume every day in the UK? Does it matter that cows, pigs, sheep and chickens appear in an idealized children’s book world where the sun always shines.
In 1996, Juliet Gellatley wrote her book ‘The Silent Ark’ about how she first understood the reality of food production as a 15 year old when she encountered an intensive pig farm.
“There were no cosy sties, no wallowing contentment, just row upon row of individual concrete stalls… Around the middle of each sow was a broad collar with an attached shackle, securing her to the ground. With this restraint she could take little more than half a pace forward and half a pace back.”
It’s no wonder that children’s books have deliberately hidden the reality of how we look after our farm animals. We continue to lie to our children because we are ashamed of the truth that’s simply too awful for young ears and eyes. But maybe we should ask, does this constant deception make us proud, and is there any way we can actually be more honest with children, for their sake and for the sake of the animals?