Tuesday, 24 December 2013

The great outdoors: getting children back to nature

With Christmas just around the corner it seems like a good time to look at the benefits of persuading children to swap their hi-tech electronic gadgets for the wonders of the great outdoors. The recently-slated Toys 'R' Us television advert that promotes their plastic junk at the expensive of a 'dull and boring' nature field trip only highlights a trend that as the rural population decreases, natural phenomena such as animals, weather and good, clean soil are deemed solely of interest to farmers. Some years ago, a London acquaintance who teaches English at a senior school reported that during a woodland walk - to explore nature poetry rather than nature itself - several of her female teenage students cried due to getting mud on their shoes. Just how distanced are children becoming from the world beyond their front door!
A sense of scale: humans against California redwoods

The last few decades have seen a move away from the outdoor adventures that typified my childhood: catching butterflies; building woodland dens; even exploring a derelict house. Instead, sitting in front of computers, TVs and games consoles has become prevalent, sometimes all at once. Not that this has gone unnoticed, as discussed in Richard Louv's best-selling Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. Although the phenomenon is common across the developed world, some countries fare better than others. For example, recent reports suggest New Zealand children (feeling a bit smug at this point) spend rather more time outdoors than their Australian, American or British counterparts. However, I'm sure there's room for improvement just about everywhere. There are many reasons behind the stay-at-home trend in addition to the obvious delights of being cosily tucked up with digital devices, but I believe it is more important to explore the effects this is having on our children:
  1. The most obvious problem caused by a shortage of physical activity outdoors - which after all is free, compared to the indoor play centres often used for children's parties - is the lack of opportunity to develop coordination and motor skills beyond the mouse or joystick. Since we've experienced a generation-on-generation increase in the number of calories, sugar and fat in our diet, then clearly there should also be an increased amount of time spent burning this off. Obviously this hasn't happened, and various groups such as the International Association for the Study of Obesity have tracked the post-war growth in overweight children. If you haven't seen any of the resulting graphs, they make for troubled reading...
  2. But it isn't just physical health that is affected. As a species, we are still coming to terms with urban living and the psychological problems of existence in near-identical cuboids in residential estates frequently bereft of greenery. The World Health Organization's definition of health includes mental well-being, which can incorporate the notion that regular playing outdoors confers benefits on children. I don't consider this as just referring to strenuous exercise: exploring the randomness of nature - from building sand castles to snowball fights - as well as the simple joys of experiencing weather at first hand, are also important. As if to confirm the problems that a lack of balance in indoor/outdoor activities can lead to, a work colleague recently informed me that his twenty-year-old son, a business degree student, was reduced to tears when he was unable to log on to his online gaming account for a few days. Oh, for an adequate sense of perspective!
  3. Does the changing emphasis from natural to man-made environments mean are we losing a vital part of our humanity? Or are we seeing a new form of evolution for our species? The differences between nature and artifice are profound, from the seemingly (although only from our viewpoint) haphazardness of the former to the non-messy convenience sought as a given via the latter. Even a basic understanding of processes from food at its source might be useful as an educative tool to engender empathy for a planet we are so rapidly despoiling. It's very easy for children to overlook the natural wonders that still exist in even the most densely populated of nations when they primarily associate the rural environment with the exotic non-developed locales usually favoured by natural history documentary programme makers.

    Viewing nature at second hand is no substitute for - literally - getting your fingers dirty, whether it is planting flowers or foodstuffs, or simply scrabbling over muddy terrain. A 2010 survey conducted in the UK indicated that between one quarter and one half of British children lack basic knowledge concerning familiar native and introduced species such as horse chestnut trees and grey squirrels. Not that I'm convinced an appreciation of the facts might lead to more environmental awareness; after all, how many times has the 'closer to nature' sustainability of pre-industrial societies been shown to be a myth? But considering for example the enormous amount of bought food that is thrown away uneaten (perhaps reaching over 40% in the USA) surely any understanding of the complex cycles within the far from limitless ecosystem may engender some changes in attitude towards reduce, reuse and recycle? As evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould once said, we will not fight to save what we do not love.
  4. Further to the last point, knowledge as a safety net might come in handy, should the need arise. There's an old adage that even the most 'civilised' of societies is only nine missed meals away from anarchy, as the citizens of New Orleans learnt all too well in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Considering just how much food manufacturers rely on oil for everything from transport to packaging (did you know North Sea prawns are flown on a 12,000 mile round trip to be cleaned and de-shelled?) it doesn't just have to be a natural disaster to generate such chaos. In October 2011 a leak in the Maui gas pipeline here in New Zealand led for a few days to empty bread shelves nationwide, highlighting the fragility of our infrastructure.

    A 2008 UK report concluded that British food retailers would exhaust their stocks in just three days in the event of a Hurricane Katrina-scale emergency, thus suggesting that those who follow chef and forager Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall or adventurer/survivalist Bear Grylls will be the victors. I'm not suggesting children should be taught to distinguish edible from poisonous fungi but considering the potential dangers of even cultivated food crops (did you know that potatoes turning green may be a sign of the poison solanine?) any knowledge of foraging and food preparation may prove useful as well as fun.
  5. Encouraging children to explore outside is as good a method as any to beget a new generation of biologists, ecologists and their ilk. Ironically, Toys 'R' Us list over 370 items in the science and discovery section of their online catalogue. Indeed, their advert includes several seconds' footage of a boy looking through the eyepiece of small reflecting telescope labelled 'science', although judging by the angle the telescope is pointing into the ground! As I've explored previously, doing practical science seems to be a far better way to introduce young children to the discipline than mere passive viewing or reading. It can also demonstrate that - with several exceptions such as high-energy physics - many of the basic structures of scientific procedure and knowledge are well within the grasp of non-scientists (perceptions are hard to shift: I recently heard a law graduate declare she wasn't sure she would be able to understand this blog, as science is of course 'very difficult'! )

    Each one of the above alone would be reason enough to encourage children to spend more time outside, but taken together they suggest that there is likely to be severe repercussions across many aspects of society if the adults of tomorrow don't get enough fresh air today. It may sound like something out of a Boys' Own Journal from the era of the British Empire, but there's something to be said for the simpler pleasures in life. I know I'd rather go for a forest walk or rock pooling than play Grand Theft Auto 5 any day...