Why Is It So Important That Our Children Play Outdoors and Engage With Nature?

Categories: Green

As a reader of this article said: "I spent my school years in a small coastal village in Norfolk having emigrated from a large city in an another country. Being a bit of a loner and an only child, I was teased and bullied not least because I couldn't get to grips with the broad Norfolk accent at first and thus completely alienated myself from others who in turn found my foreign accent odd.

The point is of course, that Nature and the Countryside were never too far away from where I lived and walking in the nearby woods, fields, beaches and country lanes became a huge tonic and a comfort to me. Not having anyone to talk to, meant that these places became havens where I could think things over and feel better.

Back then, I didn't really appreciate it fully. It was just somewhere where I could escape to and the earliest chance I had to move to London, I did. Only now, do I realise how important the outdoors were for me; I re-visit places I used to haunt and I'm filled with a very deep love for those places and all such places really. Running around woods and fields was probably the best therapy I ever needed back then.

Sorry, didn't mean to disclose so much - just wanted to say that the countryside can have deep and long lasting psychological and emotional benefits as well as health benefits."

More and more children today have less and less contact with the natural world. And this is having a huge impact on their health and development.

Please comment or share with us your thoughts after reading the following article we found via The Guardian.

Cows hibernate in winter, grey squirrels are native to this country, conkers come from oak (or maybe beech, or is it fir?) trees, and of course there's no such thing as a leaf that can soothe a nettle sting. Or so, according to a new survey, believe between a quarter and a half of all British children. You can't really blame them: if, like 64% of kids today, you played outside less than once a week, or were one of the 28% who haven't been on a country walk in the last year, the 21% who've never been to a farm and the 20% who have never once climbed a tree, you wouldn't know much about nature either.

The survey, of 2,000 eight-to-12-year-olds for the TV channel Eden, is the latest in a string of similar studies over the last couple of years: more children can identify a Dalek than an owl; a big majority play indoors more often than out. The distance our kids stray from home on their own has shrunk by 90% since the 70s; 43% of adults think a child shouldn't play outdoors unsupervised until the age of 14. More children are now admitted to British hospitals for injuries incurred falling out of bed than falling out of trees.

Does any of this matter? In an age of cable TV, Nintendos, Facebook and YouTube, is it actually important to be able to tell catkins from cow parsley, or jackdaws from jays? Well, it obviously can't do any harm to know a bit about the natural world beyond the screen and the front door. And if, as a result of that, you develop a love for nature, you may care something for its survival, which is probably no bad thing.

But a growing body of evidence is starting to show that it's not so much what children know about nature that's important, as what happens to them when they are in nature (and not just in it, but in it by themselves, without grownups). Respectable scientists – doctors, mental health experts, educationalists, sociologists – are beginning to suggest that when kids stop going out into the natural world to play, it can affect not just their development as individuals, but society as a whole.

"There's a paradox," says Stephen Moss, naturalist, broadcaster and author. "More kids today are interested in the natural world than ever before; they watch it on the telly, they may well visit a nature reserve or a National Trust site with their families. But far fewer are experiencing it directly, on their own or with their friends, and that's what counts: this is about more than nature."

The American writer Richard Louv, author of the bestseller Last Child in the Woods, has defined the phenomenon as "nature deficit disorder". Something "very profound" has happened to children's relationship with nature over the last couple of decades, he says, for a number of reasons. Technology, obviously, is one: a recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation in the US found that the average eight-to-18-year-old American now spends more than 53 hours a week "using entertainment media".

Then there's the fact that children's time is much more pressured than it once was. Spare time must be spent constructively: after-school activities, coaching, organised sports – no time for kicking your heels outdoors. Except kids never did really kick their heels. "I was out on my own and with my friends all the time, from the age of about eight," says Moss, now 50. "Climbing trees, building dens, collecting birds' eggs and frogspawn. Today, parents don't even want their kids to get dirty."

But the biggest obstacles to today's children being allowed out in this way (or even to the nearest park or patch of wasteground) stem more from anxiety than squeamishness. "Stranger danger", the fear of abduction by an unknown adult, is why most parents won't allow kids out unsupervised. Blanket media coverage of the few such incidents that do occur may have contributed to this; in fact, there is a risk but it's minimal – the chance of a child being killed by a stranger in Britain is, literally, one in a million, and has been since the 70s. "A far more serious issue, a massive issue in fact, is traffic," says Moss. "That has grown exponentially, and it's a very real problem."

It's a problem we need to address, because the consequences of failing to allow our children to play independently outside are beginning to make themselves felt. On the website childrenandnature.org, Louv cites a lengthening list of scientific studies indicating that time spent in free play in the natural world – a free-range childhood, perhaps – has a huge impact on health.

Obesity is perhaps the most visible symptom of the lack of such play, but literally dozens of studies from around the world show regular time outdoors produces significant improvements in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning ability, creativity and mental, psychological and emotional well-being.

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