Why Connecting Children With Nature Matters

Pause for a minute and think of your favourite memories of childhood play.

Were you hurtling down a hill on cardboard?

Digging a hole to China?

Or making a hut at the end of the garden?

Whatever your version, Iʼm guessing you were outside.SAM_1926 (Small)

Mine was under an old totara tree. The branches came all the way to the ground. We made a path of stones to lead you in.

It was secret.

And quiet.

And smelt of earth.

Inside were imaginary rooms and the creek was right outside. Iʼm guessing Mum knew where we were. But I canʼt be sure.

It sounds like a typical kiwi childhood. Lots of mud, risk and freedom.

But childhood experiences are shifting

Todayʼs youngsters are spending far less time outdoors than any previous generation. Their schedules are busier, activities more organised and any free time competes with the ever present lure of indoor entertainment.

Then thereʼs the fear.

Parents go through more emotional gymnastics letting kids out beyond the garden gate than it seems their parents did.

Modern day parents have been described as ʻmarinated in fearʼ.

Stranger danger, faster cars and the perils of the natural world itself are keeping our kids safely indoors.

And itʼs rubbing off.

A Massey University study found that children are picking up on their parents’ fears and are reluctant to be alone or venture out. When asked about their adventures the children in the study talked about video games.

More than just childhood memories are at stake

Richard Louv bestselling author of The Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle coined the phrase nature-deficit disorder sparking an international movement and national debate across North America.

Louv suggests the disconnection of children with nature correlates with increasing social, mental and physical health problems.

Thereʼs growing evidence linking a lack of time outdoors to childhood obesity, vitamin D deficiency and rising rates of depression.

Kids who do play outside are more adaptable, less likely to get sick and get along with each other better.

Itʼs no surprise ʻnature prescriptionsʼ are being written by paediatricians to help children cope with a range of issues from difficulty concentrating to autism.

The simple act of mucking around outside was a hot topic at last yearʼs NZ Nature Education Network conference The Natural Phenomena.

Unstructured. Creative. Social. Mucking around comes with an inbuilt need to assess risk and adapt to changing circumstances.

Keynote speaker Griffin Longley, CEO of Nature Play, Western Australia, reported in one generation our parks are empty and our kids are more likely to be ‘playing’ on technology, blurring the lines of entertainment and play.

Take note how many kids you see meandering home from school. Or at the local park engaged in make-it-up-as-you-go type play.

“Every child needs to feel safe,” says Griffin, “and brave to thrive.” That may seem like a dichotomy but it comes back to our view of risk.

Distinguishing a hazard from a risk is important. Remove the hazard and tackling something risky builds bravery, discernment and a sense of accomplishment at any age.

Nature has a system that already works. And kids learn through trial and error.

So with more people on the planet living in urbanised environments how do we reconnect children with the outdoors?

It begins at our doorstep underneath the bare feet of our youngest tamariki.

Getting kids outside is a conscious action led by parents and educators.

A bug under a log provides wonder and excitement that canʼt be felt elsewhere.

Encourage children to feel part of nature at a young age. Help them watch clouds, feel grass under their feet, dig a hole in the back yard.

It neednʼt take a lot of resources. Itʼs a way of thinking about life.

For conference details and resources see www.natureeducationnetwork.co.n20140913-Natural Phenomena-157-90 (Small)