Sophie Anderson, the author of The Girl Who Speaks Bear on her own outdoor upbringing and the importance of outdoor adventures for children

My childhood was spent building dens, climbing trees, exploring the woods behind our family home, rockpooling on the beaches of the Gower peninsula and splashing
in the waves.

I loved being outdoors; exploring, discovering, and using the whole wide world as the setting for my make-believe stories and games. A sloping field was a Roman Amphitheatre, the roaring winds were the clashes of gladiators and lions.

A deep cave in Caswell Bay was a gateway to the underworld, echoing with the whispers of long dead souls. A patch of boggy ground was where the Gloop Man lived, his eyes watching from
every bubble in the mud.

School often felt like a cage, but I did enjoy the lessons that taught me something about the natural world. I studied Biology and Geology at sixth form and at University, then worked as an exploration Geologist for several years before moving into secondary school teaching. 

As a science teacher, I wanted to share my love of the natural world with children. I ran lunchtime clubs, created wildlife gardens, organised trips to woodlands and beaches, took children pond dipping and bird watching in local parks.

Most of the schools I taught at were in cities, and I was shocked that many of the children had never seen frogspawn or tadpoles, or starfish in rockpools, and had never held soil in their hands. They didn’t know the names of blackbirds or buttercups. Some pupils thought the Blue Whales I showed them on a David Attenborough documentary were CGI graphics.

Watching the wonder in these children grow as they were given the opportunity to explore and discover more about the natural world was incredible. Their curiosity blossomed and they became calmer and more focused. They learned so much, not only about the world, but about each other, and about themselves. They perfectly illustrated one of my favourite quotes: “look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better” by Albert Einstein.

When my husband and I started a family, we decided early on to raise our children surrounded by the natural world, and give them to opportunity to explore it as much as possible. We moved to the Lake District, and spent every spare moment walking and canoeing with our children. 

As our children have grown older, we have armed them with walkie-talkies and allowed them more freedom to explore alone. Their natural curiosity has led them to endless discoveries: sycamore seeds that fly like helicopters, tiny ermine caterpillars that cover whole trees with silk webs, caddisfly larvae that build cocoons from shiny grains of sand, and newborn fawns that lie quietly in grass while their mothers drink from bubbling streams.

The whole wide world has become the setting for their make-believe stories too. The mossy rocks are sleeping trolls that awake to dance at night. The plunge pools are where freshwater kraken play hide and seek with giant toads. A fallen log is a boat, and a train, and a plane. And there be dragons high in the mountains. They have developed a deep love and respect for the natural world, and it has inspired endless creativity. 

I, too, am inspired by the natural world, and I love trying to capture something of its beauty in my writing.

Jackie Morris, in her winner’s speech at the Carnegie & Kate Greenway Awards, said (of ‘The Lost Words’, the beautiful and timely book she created with Robert Macfarlane): “At the heart of our book was a desire to refocus the minds, eyes, hearts of children on the awesome, glorious beauty of the natural world which humans are a tiny part.”

Although the stories I write are fiction and fantasy, I feel the same way. In The Girl Who Speaks Bear, I think of the forest itself as a character I wanted to introduce to readers. I wanted them to see and feel something of its beauty, and perhaps be inspired to go and discover some of its wonders for themselves.

In the words of Socrates: “wonder is the beginning of wisdom.” I believe we need both to make ourselves, our society and our world a better place.

If you enjoyed this article, why not read about ‘The importance of PE‘?