Children grow healthier, wiser, and more content when they are more fully connected throughout their childhood to the natural environment in as many educational and recreational settings as possible. These benefits are long term, significant and contribute to their future wellbeing as well as the contributions they will make to the world as adults.
Children are disappearing from the outdoors at a rate that would make them top of any conservationist’s list of endangered species if they were any other member of the animal kingdom.
A child’s experience in the natural world can be as small as helping to plant a roof top garden, sitting under, in, or around the single tree in sight, or listening for the sound of a bird. Spending time in a natural environment has been documented to improve life and learning in many ways. Sadly, such a connection with nature has been slipping away from many of us. There is an emerging awareness and concern that children are less and less likely to have experiences that involve the simplest interactions with nature—the plants, animals, and the earth around them—as a part of their continuous learning process. As we look at the children around us, we observe them living increasingly unhealthy lifestyles. For many, childhood is spent overly plugged in and programmed inside their homes, schools, and community settings in human-made environments, eliminating the out-of-doors, the benefits of nature, and all that exists in the natural environment.
How does this "disconnect" impact children today?
Even a generation ago, children spent more time outside, because it was the normal thing for children to do. Adults did not question the value of time spent out-of-doors and had much less anxiety about the risks involved. Children walked and played outdoors and planted things in the dirt; they rode their bikes, invented games, and spent the majority of their time in less structured activities and natural environments. Very young children carried out these activities in their yards and immediate neighborhoods. Urban environments offered the occasional playground and open park. Older children roamed beyond their homes to adjacent lands, streams, open pieces of veld or forests. Exposure to the natural world brought opportunities for children to make sense of their surroundings and to develop their own sense of place.
- Children now spend nearly 30 hours a week watching a TV or computer screen, listening to something through headphones or, for older children, using cell phones or media players (Note: the several comments about overuse of technology in this article should not be interpreted as a rejection of technology in children’s lives; it is a matter of balance. Ever more, the balance is moving in an often unhealthy direction.)
- Children experience increasingly timed and structured family lifestyles with less emphasis on unstructured outside time. Particularly in more densely populated areas, urban growth has eliminated green spaces and natural environments.
- In South Africa especially, children living in unsafe urban areas are kept indoors to protect them from the risk of crime.
- In America, two of every ten children are clinically obese, and child obesity rates are increasing at an alarming rate—almost fourfold in three decades.
- There is a steep increase in the use of behavioral drugs in preschool children, surpassing the use of antibiotics and drugs for childhood asthma. Drug use for conditions such as ADHD is skyrocketing. Currently eight million children in the U.S. alone have mental disorders with ADHD a prominent diagnosis and estimates in South Africa indicate that over 10% of children have ADHD
- The curriculum for schools is becoming narrower, with more time spent on teacher-directed lessons and testing and less time spent investigating, learning through activities that build on a child’s sense of wonder, curiosit and the benefit of first-hand experiences
Consequently, we have gradually found our children growing up in a clash of optimal and minimal learning opportunities. Optimally, technology opens worlds never before so readily available to children; however, the opening of this side of learning has contributed to shutting the door to children’s access to the more natural environment that gives a lasting attachment to children’s sense of place and their awareness of the habitat and environment nearest to them. This lack of connection can engender both apathy and ignorance in children’s early perceptions of the world around them and their roles in enjoying, learning from, and protecting it.
I suspect that the child plucks its first flower with an insight into its beauty and significance which the subsequent botanist never retains ~ Henry David Thoreau, American Naturalist
The benefits of nature for children
- Children develop and cultivate an understanding of fellow creatures.
- Spending time in nature aids in stress reduction and in the treatment of depression and ADHD.
- Both boys and girls develop the courage to handle challenges, problems, investigations, and just manageable risk.
- Children are encouraged to build a sense of caring about the earth and the need to act responsibly toward it. E.O. Wilson describes this innate need for connection as biophilia, finding a place for yourself in the world
- Natural environments offer greater opportunities for unfettered physical movement, thus decreasing the likelihood of obesity
- Children who experience the natural world and have opportunities to play and learn within it are more likely to choose science or related fields as careers.
- Nature learning brings an expanded view of aesthetics. The fusion of the arts, music, history, and literature is also made possible when the nature and culture that surrounds children is documented and guided through their self expression
￼The most obvious thing schools can do in this regard is give children experiences with real things toward which symbols are only dim pointers. Unless emotionally connected to some direct experience with the world, symbols reach kids as merely arbitrary bits of data. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but to a young child who has held a squiggly worm in her hand, even the printed symbol "Worm" resonates with far deeper meaning than a thousand pictures or a dozen Discovery Channel videos