Take a moment to envision the most meaningful place of your childhood. There’s a good chance that it was somewhere outdoors. Ours, however, may be the last generation to remember what it’s like to deeply connect with nature. Why? Because children around the world today spend as much as 90% of their time indoors. On average, seven hours of this time is spent in front of a glowing screen. And, for the first time ever, most live in urban areas, often far from green space. This trend has serious implications for children’s healthy development – and for the health of the natural environment itself.
To address this growing lack of nature connection, more than 900 educators, public health advocates, urban planners and researchers from 22 countries gathered in Vancouver in mid-April for the 2017 Children & Nature Network International Conference. The gathering brought together people who are seeking to create a planet in which all children benefit from nature in their daily lives.
Along with Jacob Rodenburg, executive director of Camp Kawartha, I had the pleasure of attending the conference and presenting an outdoor workshop based on activities from “The Big Book of Nature Activities”, which we co-authored. There were also forums and workshops on topics such as forest kindergartens (a preschool held almost exclusively outdoors), naturalizing schoolyards, risky play, the health benefits of nature, honoring indigenous knowledge, designing natural playgrounds and supporting culturally relevant leaders. The keynote speakers included Richard Louv, co- founder of the Children & Nature Network (C&NN) and author of the best-selling book, “Last Child in the Woods”.
Children today are more likely to report symptoms of attention disorder and depression and are often medicated for these problems. Mental health issues, childhood obesity and even myopia appear to be exacerbated by a lack of time spent playing outdoors in nature. However, “Science increasingly tells us that time in nature has the power to make children healthier, happier and smarter,” says Sarah Milligan-Toffler, the executive director of C&NN.
Thirty years ago, there were no more than a handful of studies on the restorative effects of natural environments on children. Today, more than 500 studies have been done and their conclusions are well-aligned. The research consistently shows restorative effects when children have improved access to nature. Depending on the child’s age, this may be the backyard, a municipal park or a wilderness area. In a pilot program in Portland, Oregon, doctors have begun writing “spend time in nature” prescriptions to their patients as part of a longitudinal study on mental health. It’s no wonder. Humans are genetically wired to be in nature, which is where our species evolved.
While it’s not practical for most families to adopt a rural life of unsupervised child-rearing, many parents and grandparents are taking steps to ensure their kids get that potentially healing contact with nearby nature through unstructured outdoor play time. The positive effects are especially strong when they are out with other kids. “We have to do this consciously, because it doesn’t happen on its own very often,” says Richard Louv. In one response to this need, the Canadian Wildlife Federation, a co-sponsor of the Vancouver conference, has created WILD Family Nature Clubs, a loose network of families that organize group hikes and other outdoor experiences.
The conference began with an address by Gil Penalosa, who advises decision makers on how to create vibrant green cities for everyone, regardless of age, gender and social, economic, or ethnic background. His talk focused on how to create connections to nature in an urbanizing world. More than half the world’s population now lives in cities. The majority of these people do not have a park or greenspace within walking distance. Sadly, the proximity of green space decreases as income decreases. However, this can be overcome by establishing everything from naturalized schoolyards and playgrounds to vastly increasing the urban tree canopy and even closing streets to traffic once a week.
One of the most inspiring presentations was by Scott Sampson, CEO of Vancouver’s Science World and creator of the popular PBS show, “Dinosaur Train”. Sampson explained that achieving nature connection can be encompassed in the acronym “NEW”. The N stands for “notice”. If we, as adults, explicitly notice nature, kids will notice it, too. When you step outside in the morning, take time to smell the air, listen to the bird song and point out what’s happening in the trees and gardens. Most children won’t make a habit of noticing nature unless we do.
The E is for “engage”. Nature connection, in Sampson’s words, is a “full contact sport” involving all the senses. Kids need opportunities to get down and dirty – dig in the mud, climb trees, play with sticks, catch wild creatures and even get scraped and bruised from time to time. We therefore need to rethink the notion of risk, and ask ourselves “What’s the risk of NOT letting a child engage in nature play?” If kids don’t deal with risks when they’re young, they may not be able to deal with them when they’re teenagers – a time when drugs, alcohol, cars and other potential dangers enter their world.
The final letter, W, stands for “wonder”. Adults need to be conveyors of wonder and awaken children’s eyes to how amazing the natural world actually is. In addition to expressing wonder yourself – “Wow! Look at all the pollen on this bee!” – ask questions and encourage kids to do the same. Let’s say you come across a bird or insect that catches a child’s attention. Rather than simply saying what it is (if you know), take time to observe it: What do YOU think it is? What do you think it’s doing? Why do you think it might be that colour or behave in that way? Later, you can sit down together to check a book or website for answers. Questions are powerful and almost always lead to rich learning. Encourage children to tell the story of their nature experiences to other people, too.
What Sampson is describing here is the importance of “mentoring”. This doesn’t mean you have to be a nature expert. Rather, a mentor’s job is to be a role model, to encourage and guide questions and to share experiences. Be sure to tell stories of nature experiences from when you were a child, too. Stories are a powerful way to engage young minds and deepen nature connection.
An essential part of this “New Nature Movement” is providing an inspiring vision to young people. We need this vision to counter the apocalyptic view of the future that inhabits so many of us these days. Many young people think the world will be a far worse place when they reach old age.
The vision needs to be much more than just a sustainable planet. As one speaker said, “Would you just want a sustainable marriage?” It must embrace the idea that people need nature and nature needs people. We can’t thrive without it, and in a world moving towards 10 billion people, nature can’t thrive without us. We need to go beyond simply saying that spending too much time indoors is bad for you, and connecting to nature has all kinds of health benefits. An uplifting vision must include the idea of “relationship”. When we look at nature, we need to see ourselves as deeply embedded within it. A forest is not simply a collection of resources or a pleasant location for jogging or playing. We need to recognize and feel the intrinsic value of other species and of entire ecosystems. When we are in nature, we are in the presence of plants and animals with which we co-evolved. We share most of the same genes. Their stories are every bit as intriguing and imbued with mystery as the story of Homo sapiens. If you need a reminder of how we co-evolved with other species, just remember that at least half the trillions of cells in our bodies are non-human. They are bacteria (over 500 species in our gut alone), viruses, mites and so on. They keep us healthy, and without them we would not survive. In other words, we need to shift to biocentric thinking – an ethic that extends inherent value to all living things.
The vision must celebrate who we are as humans and where we came from. Variously called the Universe Story, Big History or the Epic of Evolution, it is the staggeringly beautiful account of our deep time origins. The story starts with the Big Bang and extends right to us – and every other living thing. Completely anchored in science, it paints the picture of a creative cosmos in which stardust has literally become living things. When children know this story, they will be inspired to shape where the narrative goes from here. Learn the story yourself, and tell it to the children in your life. Google “big history project”. Pick up a copy of Sampson’s “How to Raise a Wild Child” too. It’s full of great mentoring ideas and includes the Big History story.
When we think of the most important issues of our time, climate change, habitat destruction and species extinction all come to mind. However, unless we connect young people – and ourselves! – to nature, a long-term solution to these problems is probably impossible. If voters and decision makers have no emotional connection to the natural world, we can’t expect them to vote or make decisions in its favour. Simply stated, we will not fight to save what we do not know or love.