A Call from The Wild: How today’s children need nature and how the future depends on it By Ian Cleary

A Call from The Wild: How today’s children need nature and how the future depends on it

I received Richard Louv’s new book the day I received the news that I was to become a father for the first time. The book, Last Child in the Woods, Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, is a timely reminder of the challenges that lie before all parents, but an equally powerful recognition that my work as an environment educator has more purpose than ever!

Louv’s fascinating book highlights the broken relationship we have with our environment which stems from spending less time physically in nature. He links this separation from the natural world to many problems facing children today, including, diminished use of the senses, attention problems, and increased emotional and physical diseases including higher levels of childhood obesity and depression. Through a combination of compelling anecdotes and research, Louv argues a strong case for more focused studies, pointing out that no other generation in human history has had such levels of disconnection with nature. He suggests causes in the current crisis include a reduction of easily available open spaces, parental fear of injury or abuse, and, of course, the modern lures of being indoors.

Any adult who has experienced the delights of natural experiences knows the benefit. But sadly, Louv believes we may have ‘scared children straight out of the woods and fields’ and given in to a litigious culture that promotes organised sports as outdoor activities over unsupervised play in nature. In addition, he believes our fear of violent crime is based on a perceived risk exaggerated by biased media coverage.

Turning our attention to indoor technologies such as TV, computer games, home computers and the Internet, we find that these have had a double impact on child development. First, they take from available time that previous generations spent outdoors and, secondly, they only allow partial development of the senses and impede physical development. A line from Richard Louv’s book really drives home the challenge ahead, when he quotes a small boy saying. ‘I like to play indoors cause that’s where all the [power] outlets are.’

The book stresses the need to see play in nature not as leisure time but as something that is as crucial for our children’s development as a balanced diet or a good night’s sleep. He uses the term ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ not to describe a medical condition but to describe the symptoms experienced when children are cut off from direct nature experiences. Louv’s examples tend to have an American focus, but in my ten years as an environmental educator I have come to believe it also exists in Australia and the UK and probably in most developed countries. It’s a symptom of a larger social problem that has children (and adults) spending less time in nature than in the past and developing more of a ‘virtual’ relationship with it.

So why is building cubby houses and catching tadpoles more important than computer skills and soccer? Studies into the effects of reduced nature experiences are limited, partly because no one took note of how much time children of the past spent outside. It was probably assumed that it would always be that way, and that it was only natural for kids to want to play outdoors. It would appear that for many this is no longer the case.

So what IS the impact of a less nature-based childhood?

The Biophilia Theory, championed by Harvard Professor E.O.Wilson, suggests that we actually have a biological need to be outdoors. We develop and thrive through the sensory input from the natural world and its absence can cause all manner of problems. A branch of psychology known as eco-psychology also supports this. Of particular interest is the work done on the apparent links between outdoor play and ADHD. Studies at Illinois University have shown that time spent outdoors in ‘green spaces’ can actually reduce the symptoms of ADHD. Louv wonders whether a lack of nature might also be a cause of such attention problems.

Nature seems to operate on a more relaxed timetable than our own. Something as simple as a walk on the beach or through a rainforest tends to have a calming effect on most people. Louv would argue that this calming effect is crucial in healthy childhood development.

Inspiring the environmentalists of the future

Of the many points Louv raises in his book, I would like to focus on one aspect that particularly concerns my profession. How do we as teachers and parents, teach about ‘the environment’ and what priority should we place on experiencing the real thing?

I believe environmental education in primary schools today should concentrate on physically getting into local forests and mangroves — learning to listen for and identify the calls of local birds, or to wander local bush land smelling, touching, tasting, listening to, and generally feeling an intimate connection with what sustains us.

Try this. Think of the term ‘environmental education’ and feel what comes to mind or what should be taught under this field. For many it gives rise to ideas of global warming, protecting rainforests and oceans, animal extinction, stopping whaling, conserving water and other catastrophes. All of that is certainly critical information for society to take on. But it’s just that — information. To change people’s actions they first have to associate the environment with something worth saving — something seen in terms of awe, wonder, beauty, vastness, inter-relationships, precious moments, complexity beyond knowing and love. With this firmly anchored in their hearts through direct experience, only then should we teach about the broader issues facing the environment. The problem is that without such direct experience of nature our kids get an imbalance of information; we risk focusing on the negatives before children develop an appreciation of the positives. It’s a little like learning about the deadly snakes before learning that most snakes are harmless and all have a crucial part to play in our environment.

How then do we relate to snakes? Are we motivated to protect them?

I often get asked the question, ‘At what age is it best to start teaching about major environmental issues?’ The answer is always the same — not until the child has had plenty of years experiencing, exploring and developing a fascination for what’s around them; not dinosaurs or Madagascan lemurs, but ‘their’ environment — real experiences. I believe the love of skinks in the backyard — not the panda bear in Asia — is more likely to drive children to live responsible environmental lives as adults.

Studies of the great environmentalists of the last hundred years show two things they have in common. First, they had a childhood rich in contact with nature, and secondly, a close relationship with an adult who was enthusiastic about the environment. These two options are becoming less available, at a time when the world actually needs more committed environmentalists. The role of teachers and parents in this equation is obvious.

A virtual relationship with nature

Ironically we live in a world where children know more about the earth, but less about their own backyard. The huge increase in information available online or through nature documentaries has almost taken the place of direct nature experiences for some. Kids will excitedly tell you of last night’s Discovery Channel documentary on monkeys, alligators, emperor penguins or lions of the Serengeti. But ask what bird just called and there are blank faces.

These amazing nature shows can perhaps do more harm than good by giving people an unreal expectation of nature. I often think back to a night walk I once led. We had been out for about an hour and in that time we had seen an echidna, a platypus, heard two types of owls calling, seen several species of frogs, a small snake and to top it off, we watched a yellow-bellied glider (a possum-like animal the size of a small cat) leap from a tall tree and, spreading flaps of skin between its legs, soar over our heads and land in a tree over 50 metres away!! At the end of the night when I asked what people thought, to my surprise several of the group, adults and children alike, were disappointed. On further questioning, they admitted they didn’t quite know what to expect, but thought they would see more ‘stuff’.

I often question younger children about animals they know. Invariably it is the tigers, lions, giraffes and elephants that first come to mind, demonstrating that their knowledge is primarily virtual, not built on experiences with their local fruit bats, frogs, gliders, possums, kangaroos, snakes and lizards. I would encourage parents to choose from the great range of children’s books available today that have an ‘Australiana’ focus.

Schools are doing an amazing job but maybe the environmental education that’s really needed goes beyond the remit of schools. In the past it has taken place on weekends and after school, in the backyard, down at the local creek or forest. It was spontaneous and unsupervised. Anecdotally, this time nowadays seems to have been taken up by other activities. Many of these nature experiences seem to be beyond formal schooling but not beyond family activities. I see huge potential here for parents to both generate environmental awareness and spend valuable time with their kids. Parents are in the best place to be that enthusiastic adult who can stimulate an interest in nature. Ultimately it will have a far greater impact on the planet than any household recycling or compost scheme.

A few years ago I worked as an Education Officer for the Oxford University’s Botanic Garden and I was asked to run kids activities once a month. It may surprise you, but I cringed at the thought of it. Not that I don’t love working with children, but I had done the ‘Kids Club’ gig at so many nature resorts and national parks, spanning a decade of school holidays and long weekends. They tended to turn into baby-sitting sessions, while the parent took a break or went off to explore on their own. It seemed like such a wasted opportunity for families to explore together. I felt for the kids and the parents as well. And so I modified the weekends from kids activities to family learning days.

The new activities I developed drew from the fascination that comes from exploring nature and from an observation that it’s often the parents who are unsure of how to ‘play’ in nature. It was a huge success and amazing to watch. Families shared the experience of learning and exploring, and parents eagerly took on the role of ‘Tour Guide’ for the day with the information I had primed them with. The activities challenged the adults to relax and enjoy their surrounds and they were often also inspired by their own child’s sense of awe. The adults soon had a ‘childlike’ fascination for what was before them. These creative and simple activities helped bring about a wonderful connection between parent, child and nature.

Over the years I have seen how many adults and children struggle being in nature. This disconnection creates a feeling of discomfort and sometimes even fear. But it never occurred to me that they may physically struggle too. The role that nature can play in the physical development of children hit me one spring morning in England. I took a school group of nine-year-olds walking through a beautiful wildflower meadow. These were kids from a rough estate who had had very few ‘outdoor’ experiences. As I watched them walk, I noticed that amongst all the laughter, they were struggling to walk over the uneven ground. Their teacher said that for many it was the first time that they had experienced uneven grass. Their brains were actually telling them, from past experience on the ovals and sidewalks, that grass is flat.

After these experiences, and now back in Australia I decided to write a book compiling all the years of activities that I have used to reconnect families with nature and with each other. I want to share beautiful ways to generate the awe and inspiration that nature provides, as well as the benefits that seem to follow.

From these activities comes a fascination for nature, confidence in being outdoors, the valuing of all life forms, improved self-esteem, imagination and creativity and a general honing of all the senses.

The activities also draw on another lesson that being in nature gives us and is particularly vital nowadays — the ability to slow down and ‘be’ at a more natural pace. Being in nature also gives us the gift of experiencing a place where there is no judgement. It is a place that eases our stresses while increasing our creativity. It has been beautiful to watch these activities heal what Richard Louv calls the ‘broken relationship with the earth’, while strengthening the bonds within the family.

Can we ever reconnect with nature?

I’ve thought a lot about whether an activity can ever actually ‘reconnect’ us with nature. It seems to me that we are never really disconnected. We breathe, we eat, we drink and in turn feed the earth with our waste and eventually our bodies. We are always connected as we ARE nature. We just live and behave as if we are not. So these so-called ‘reconnecting with nature’ activities actually help us to change our awareness of our place in nature; helping us to realise how deeply connected we always are.

It’s an exciting time to be alive and raise kids. I’m inspired by the incredible environmental movement, its dedicated teachers and rich spiritual traditions that are reawakening our awareness of our earthly origins. I want my children to live in a world rich in biodiversity and have a deep respect for others and nature, and see the role I played in helping them achieve it. It does take a commitment of time and energy, and often it feels like a movement against the tide. But I have a quotation on my office wall that I often look to for encouragement.

‘Some people know what they do. Others know why they do what they do. But nobody knows what they do, DOES.’

Hopefully through the work of enthusiastic parents and teachers, enough kids will develop an intimate love of their nature so that they will help drive us in a new direction — towards a life-sustaining society instead of our industrial growth society that is failing our children and our environment.

And so my thoughts turn from environmental educator to parent. How best to raise my child? I know the adult I am today is a result of my childhood. I cherish my memories of the outdoors, of camping, fishing, swimming, walking and, best of all, exploring. As a father-to-be, I know that I will be guided by that nostalgic view of a carefree childhood, and will make it a priority to give my child those opportunities. I also realise I will be challenged by the clash of past and present. I am not immune to the media messages about unsupervised play. The question is ‘Will I let my children explore on their own?’ I recognise the importance of nature and the harm caused by its absence, so the answer is ‘absolutely’. Not that I intend to disregard the potential dangers, it’s just that I will assess them against the risk to my child’s mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing of not having a nature-based upbringing.

Advice from me as an environmental educator is to be cautious about what we are teaching about the environment; push for school outings; fight to save the local bushland; meet your ‘neighbours’ (the birds, reptiles and frogs); read Louv’s book and most importantly, get out there. Merely being in nature will benefit you and your kids and … their kids. 

Published in Kindred issue 22, June 07

Ian Cleary is a passionate educator and speaker, whose environmental vision has taken him around Australia and the world. Now, as co-founder of True Nature Guides, he inspires people to experience and celebrate their profound connection with their inner and outer nature, their True Nature. To receive regular fun family activities, or updates on future workshops or publications, email Ian.

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