How natural play helped shaped my life
Guest post – Paul Toyne (London Sustainable Development Commissioner and Group Head of Sustainability at WSP Group)
Supporters of outdoor play are invariably those who have had the benefit of such experiences themselves. I am no different, and here I want to add my support to the campaign Love Outdoor Play by telling you my story.
Growing up I was fortunate enough to have access to the green open spaces of west London. Chiswick House, Richmond Park and tow path of the River Thames were all in my range, either on foot, by bike or a bus ride. These green spaces allowed me to roam and explore. I found all forms of nature fascinating, and I can still remember vividly, as an eight year old, the day I saw tens of common toads attempting to mate in the Penn Ponds of Richmond Park. I went back over successive weeks to see the spawn, the tadpoles and finally the young. I know this is probably a bit naughty but I caught some adult toads and set about creating their habitat in a very large metal laundry bowl in our garden patio. Through this I learnt about their ecology, as I had to provide them with the right habitat and the right diet.
My interest bordered on madness – judging by my families’ reaction – as I insisted that they accompany us on our annual family holiday to stay with my grandparents on the Isle of Wight – all squeezed into an ancient VW Beetle with Mum, Dad and my sister. By now the menagerie had grown to include a separate fish tank housing a smooth newt. The newt was found on the tow path near Kew and I was in awe of its amazing design and amphibious lifestyle. Having wild animals as pets taught me responsibility, and whilst on the holiday I would raid my grandparents neighbours’ rosebushes looking for aphids to feed them, and turning over their pots to seek worms and woodlouse for the toads. It was an amazing summer of learning, however with the autumn coming I realised that they should be returned to where I found them to allow them prepare for hibernation.
So how has this experience influenced me? I studied environmental science at university and assessed amphibian habitats for my dissertation. I first went to forge a career in science studying wildlife in the UK and far flung places like Ecuador – actually discovering new species to science. And then later in nature conservation working for WWF, on issues ranging from tiger conservation to sustainable forest management. Today I advise companies on how to improve their environmental and social performance through their operations, goods and services they offer, to help transform our built environment making them more sustainable.
I passionately believe that children should have access to playing outdoors and exploring that space. Play allows us to understand our relationship with the environment and have fun doing so! As a Commissioner I was delighted to support Sowing the Seeds. This publication describes the importance of accessing nature and provides a number of recommendations to help deliver this – so do take a quick read. To turn the recommendations into outcomes, we have a wide network of over a 100 community groups and interested people, and a steering group that includes Play England amongst others.
I still love ‘playing’ outside and enjoying open spaces. And yes I still cycle! Spiritually and emotionally I could not think of not having that opportunity to play outdoors as a child.