Let your kids go wild. Better environmental and sustainable practice will need future generations of people who are aware of the natural would around them. However, while environmental and sustainability issues are becoming more prominent, perversely young people as a whole have less access to nature than in any previous generation. Our future policy makers are likely to have had little contact with the natural world.
While this lack of contact with the natural world will increase the risks for nature, it also affects individuals. Richard Louv explored the increasing dissociation of kids from their natural environment and its psychological impact in Last Child in the Woods. He coined the notion of Nature Deficit Disorder to describe the result wide range of behavioral problems. Broadly speaking children who learn in the outdoors tend to be more confident, are more dexterous and sociable, with a better sense of managing risk and judging their limitations. He identified some of the reasons behind the trend such as parental fears, restricted access to natural areas, and the lure of TV and video games. In the UK, award-winning nature author and wildlife TV producer Stephen Moss explored the issue writing the report Natural Childhood for the National Trust.
Over three generations the experience of the natural world for most children has changed dramatically. Our inter-war grandparents would happily walk several miles to go fishing alone or with mates but post-war parents saw their childhood freedom became restricted to travelling to school and playing in immediate neighborhood streets and parks. The generation of children today are lucky to spend significant time ‘watched’ in the safety of their gardens and play areas and are more likely to be spending their time in their bedrooms. Moss reiterates the human costs of alienation from nature, such as diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses. Reconnecting People with Nature, the Natural Trust’s subsequent consultation with experts in outdoor learning reemphasizes highlights particular barriers…
- The health and safety culture that regards natural places as a dangerous and alien environment (where children have to be escorted and dressed in hazard tabards to walk in the woods)
- The danger of traffic cutting the safe routes for children to explore
- The rise of indoor entertainment
- Time pressure within schools for finding space for nature
- Poorer access to and quality of green spaces
- Barriers which are socio economic, disproportionately affecting some groups such a black and ethnic minorities
- The disproportionate fear of ‘stranger danger’
Evidence has been accumulating. In the research review Every Child Outdoors (2010) the RSPB highlighted the benefits of outdoor engagement to educational attainment, health and well-being and developing personal and social skills. Natural England’s review Children and the natural environment: experiences, influences and interventions (2011), particularly highlighted the problem of disproportionate risk assessment by adults. There have also been significant responses, for example the work of the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom, alongside the efforts of many environment NGOs and Trusts. However an overriding message remains, the efforts needed to be significantly amplified to address the scale of the issues implied by the evidence.