“We have such a brief opportunity to pass on to our children our love for this earth, and to tell our stories. These are the moments when the world is made whole” Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods.
There is scientific evidence that childhood exposure to natural settings raises interest in environmental stewardship and leads to careers and hobbies connected with nature and the environment. I’m certainly an example of this; having grown up on a small dairy farm with four siblings, we had loads of unstructured, unsupervised time to do whatever we wanted. We climbed the tallest trees, leapt from branches to the ground in bare feet, crawled through crevices in hay stacks, built cubbies in piled up dead trees, encountered wildlife including snakes and spiders, had mud fights in the swamp, looked for creatures down by the creek, and pretended tree hollows were magical places. We also cared for animals, grew vegetables and spent family time bushwalking, fishing, swimming in rivers, and camping.
I started becoming really concerned about environmental issues at around age 14 when I tried out being a vegetarian. Ever since then my hobbies, recreational pursuits, studies, and employment have revolved around nature and sustainability. One of my greatest goals in life is to pass on this same love for the earth to my children. Those of you who have read the Our Story page of this blog will know that we recently moved to a farm, in part to give our children more opportunity to have the experiences described above. I also try to take them camping more than once per year – we recently succeeded at camping without waste – and spend our regular family days doing something nature based.
I make the effort because the benefits of children being in nature don’t stop with developing environmentally responsible citizens. Science is proving that time in nature provides exercise, reduces anxiety, improves focus, makes kids smarter, and helps develop deeper connections with family. Nature-Deficit Disorder (NDD) is the term coined by Richard Louv to describe the costs to individuals who miss out on exposure to nature (it is not a medical diagnosis). We’ve all heard how little time children spend outdoors compared to only a few decades ago and how this is leading to things like obesity and behavioural disorders.
Now add to this a lack of risky play, another aspect of our children’s lives that has been removed. Risky play is about playing freely without adult control and taking some risks that might involve injuring oneself. It is a natural and positive part of children’s play that is crucial for learning how to manage situations and developing life skills like how to manage fear and anger, and how to try again by doing something a different way. And because risky play usually involves climbing, balancing, jumping from heights and hanging upside down, it’s also essential for developing motor skills, balance, coordination and body awareness. Children who don’t get these experiences are much more likely to be clumsy, to injure themselves and possibly develop mental illness (I’ve learnt a lot by volunteering for fours years at my children’s kindergarten).
I believe children are naturally good at knowing their capabilities and avoiding risks they aren’t ready to take – I see it in my children all the time so I let them be in charge of their own play as much as possible. For me the benefits of risky play far outweigh the potential risks. But how does this relate to NDD and developing environmental stewardship? My experience is that parents and guardians overly concerned with risk view nature as wrought with danger. The perceived risk becomes a barrier to children engaging in nature based experiences and contributes to the number of individuals who don’t develop an adequate appreciation for nature and suffer the consequences of NDD.
Our recent camping trip gave the kids plenty of opportunity to engage in risky play, and to simply enjoy unstructured play with no time pressures for three days. This sort of play with other children boosts problem solving skills, focus, self discipline, cooperation and self awareness. Not once over the three days was I asked “what can I do now?” Or told “I’m bored”. They entertained themselves by:
- Whittling sticks with a pocket knife
- Pretending to hunt for fish in the river with spear sticks they made
- Walking and playing in the river in all weather conditions doing who-knows-what in their imaginary worlds
- Running through rain and puddles during a storm
- Lighting and stoking the camp fire
- Burning sticks and writing their names in the air with the smoke
- Climbing slippery rocks
- Balancing on logs above water
- Bushwalking and exploring at night
- Learning to tie knots
- Building a drying rack/shelter with available materials
- Making a see-saw from fallen branches
- Looking at the stars, sunsets and sunrises to appreciate their beauty and learn which way is North
- Playing cricket
- Playing hopscotch
- Grinding up different coloured rocks and painting their bodies
- Listening to birds in the early morning and owls at night
- Discovering a Satin Bowerbird bower
- Singing along to guitar music, and
- Socialising around the campfire.
I’m incredibly happy with the way they spent their time.
So what better thing can we do for the wellbeing of our children and the wellbeing of the planet than immerse our children in nature at every opportunity?
This post was republished by 1 Million Women, a movement of women acting on climate change through the way we live.