Help children connect with nature

A
growing consensus of opinion suggests that youngsters’ increasing isolation
from nature could be harmful.

Forceful
mums and dads will try loading their “screenagers” in the car to take them for
a walk. More certainly would, if they had been reading the new edition of
Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods.

Five
years ago, when the book was first published, Louv’s was the first voice heard
in what is becoming a dawn chorus of concern about the way children are
deprived of nature.

He
went so far as to call this disconnect an illness – Nature Deficit Disorder –
the symptoms of which include depression, hyperactivity, boredom and loneliness.
All of these problems have been increasing, along with obesity rates, as
children spend more time either indoors, or in cars, glued to screens and divorced
from nature.

According
to a survey by Natural England, less than a quarter of children (24 per cent)
visit a local patch of green weekly, whereas 53 per cent of their parents did.

Louv’s
concerns were echoed last week by Sir David Attenborough. The presenter of
numerous wildlife series lamented the various obstacles – parental fear, health
and safety rules, and laws against collecting fossils or wild flowers – that
prevent children from “roaming the countryside” in the way that he did 80 years
ago, as a child.

One
of those obstacles, it must be said, is the hours that children spend watching
his television programmes about nature, which make them feel that they have
seen, and know, it all.

“I
daresay they know more about East African lions and game than they do about
foxes,” he acknowledged. Entrancing though it is to watch the wildebeest
migration or wheeling shoals of sardines, lack of direct experience of nature
is impoverishing children – and adults – in ways that scientists are only
beginning to understand.

We
are profoundly ignorant of our own surroundings. In a recent poll conducted by
the Natural History Museum, less than a quarter of Britons could identify a
sycamore tree, two thirds failed to recognise a peacock butterfly, and less
than a fifth correctly labelled a frog: they either thought it was its warty
relative, the toad, or had no idea at all.

Such
findings are shaming, but they are also worrying. Louv has drawn together all
the various strands of research that add up to a mental and physical health
disaster.

One
of the points Louv makes is that time slows down when we are in nature. We stop
and stare, we think about other species, we “bring the confusion of the world
to the woods and wash it in the creek”; an organised football game, albeit
outdoors, does not meet that need.

Instinctively,
we all know that nature does us good. We pay more for houses with good views,
hospital patients with a green view from their beds recover more quickly, and
joggers who run through parks have been found to feel more restored, less
anxious or depressed than those who run burn the same calories in gyms. But, as
parents bringing up children in urban environments, we tend to be in such a
rush that we forget that even a small amount of exposure to nature is
beneficial.

Louv
believes that, particularly in the English-speaking world, we are getting the
message about nature acting as a natural Ritalin to hyperactive children.
Setting up a bird bath, digging a pond in the garden, or growing plants, which
attract butterflies number among the 100 suggestions in his book for helping
children connect with nature.

Exciting
interest could be as simple as giving a child a camera to photograph wildlife.
Or by stepping out of the front door at full moon, just to look, listen and
wonder.

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