“Here is the vast, savage, howling mother of ours,
Nature lying all around, with such beauty, and such affection for her children,
As the leopard; and yet we are so early weaned
From her breast to society, to that culture which is exclusively
an interaction of man on man.”
– Henry David Thoreau.
I remember my days as a child before the advent of colour television, X-Boxes and the internet; the outside world was bold and dangerous, and I loved it.
I remember being out in the fields, swinging over rivers and falling out of trees. Taking risks, eating berries, apples and nuts as I wandered through nature’s playground…and look! I am still here, healthy and much wiser for the experiences. I now look at the young children today, silently standing in groups frantically tapping at their mobile phones, most unaware of the environment in which they live, unaware of the bounty of wild foods at their fingertips, unaware of the flora and fauna under their very noses, and I ask myself; “Where did the wild child go?”
I recently finished reading a book called “Last Child in the Woods.” by Richard Louv. The author is the chairman and cofounder of the Children and Nature Network.
In his book he puts together years of research into the changing attitudes of young people to the environment and nature, his findings were both staggering and disturbing.
Nature Deficit Disorder
In his book, he coined the phrase “Nature Deficit Disorder” describing children’s disassociation with Nature and the effects it has on their physical and mental health. Only recently have psychologists recognized the reality of this condition.
The opportunities for a child to enjoy free-range, non-formal play is now considered important for their growth and happiness.
Today, children spend far too much time in front of a TV or computer screen, leading to an increase in the likelihood of obesity and poor health in the future. A child that plays outside is both fitter and more mentally acute. The lack of Vitamin D, from sunlight, can lead to diabetes and later in life cancer. The amount of active ingredient in supplements is not sufficient to counter these problems.
Being outdoors improves the eyesight, the quality of natural light and the range of the optical spectrum enhances the optical acuity and can reduce the chances of becoming short sighted in later life, and of course outdoor play will increase a child’s balance, agility and fine motor skills.
It is not just the physical well-being of the child that is catered for in outdoor activity. A healthy body leads to a healthy mind. If the senses are stimulated the child is more likely to be able to concentrate for longer periods hence outdoor activity has been shown to help children with ADHD.
Dr. Stephen R. Kellert, of Yale University states,
“Play in nature, particularly during the critical period of middle childhood, appears to be an especially important time for developing the capacities for creativity, problem-solving, and emotional and intellectual development.” He continues to state, “Unfortunately, during at least the past 25 years, the chances for children to directly experience nature during playtime has drastically declined. For many reasons, most children today have fewer opportunities to spontaneously engage and immerse themselves in the nearby outdoors.”
Dr. Rhonda Clements, a professor of education at Manhattanville College in New York State, surveyed over 800 mothers in the United States to explore the extent to which children in the early 2000s play outdoors as compared to a generation ago when the mothers interviewed were children: 71 percent of mothers said they recalled playing outdoors every day as children, but only 26 percent of them said their kids play outdoors on a daily basis.
In her survey, Dr. Clements also found that while almost all mothers asked recognized some of the benefits of outdoor play, things got in the way, such as television, computers, and their own concerns about crime, safety, and injury, which prevented their children from participating in more outdoor play.
In the UK, experts are echoing the findings of their American counterparts.
Fiona Reynolds, Director-General of the National Trust, said:
“Getting outdoors and closer to nature has all sorts of benefits for our children. It keeps them fit, they can learn about the world around them and most of all its fun.
That’s why it’s so worrying that so many children today don’t have the opportunity to experience the outdoors and nature. Building a den, picking flowers, climbing trees – the outdoors is a treasure trove, rich in imagination. It brings huge benefits that we believe every child should have the opportunity to experience. And there are huge costs when they don’t.
As a nation we need to do everything we can to make it easy and safe for our children to get outdoors.
We want to move the debate on and encourage people and organisations to think about how we take practical steps to reconnect children with the natural world and inspire them to get outdoors.”
What can be done to reverse this trend?
Over the last ten years a generation of “cotton wool” kids have emerged, protected from experiencing the rough and tumble of life in the great outdoors, the constant round of bad news stories of abduction and accidents putting the fear of god into parents that sincerely believe that the world is a whole lot more dangerous than in their day.
The statistics from a recent National Trust Report reveal that things have changed dramatically in just one generation:
· Fewer than 10 per cent of kids play in wild places; down from 50 per cent a generation ago
· The roaming radius for kids has declined by 90 per cent in one generation (thirty years)
· Three times as many children are taken to hospital each year after falling out of bed, as from falling out of trees
· A 2008 study showed that half of all kids had been stopped from climbing trees, 20 per cent had been banned from playing conkers or games of tag.
The lawmakers of this and other countries are as much to blame for casting fear into the minds of parents by implementing a “don’t do that” policy, where children that get outdoors are labelled as anti social.
Research has shown that getting children involved in outdoor activities, amongst nature, before their twelfth birthdays sets the tone for a greater respect and interest in environmental issues.
An inquiry by the National Trust, is taking evidence from leading experts and the public to look at how we can reconnect this and future generations of children with the natural world. It is working alongside Arla, the NHS Sustainable Development Unit and film-makers Green Lions, to organise a meeting this summer to bring together experts from relevant groups to develop a plan for reconnecting children and nature.
A recent investigation by the Daily Mirror into the increase of mental health problems in children under 11 years old revealed some shocking results.
• 4391 children aged 10 or under have received treatment for stress, anxiety or depression in the last five years, according to figures from two of the biggest NHS mental health trusts.
• Two – thirds of local authorities have had to slash their budgets for early intervention schemes such as educational psychologists, social workers and parenting programmes since 2010.
• The World Health Organisation estimate that by 2030 depression is going to be the biggest health problem in the Western world.
• South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust treated 814 children 10 years and younger in 2011.
• South Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust looked after 102 youngsters in the same age group during the same period. This is more than double the figures for 2008.
• Of the 51 councils that responded to a freedom of information request by Young Minds, 34 said they had slashed spending on children and adolescent mental health services since 2010.
These are frightening figures but surely it would be better to avoid having to use these services by making sure that our children are not put under so much stress in their young lives. Maybe make time spent outside in Nature a compulsory part of the curriculum.