The great outdoors

Get the kids outside and enjoying the good life in Godzone. As Rochelle Gillespie writes, the evidence is stacking up showing many children are missing out on getting in touch with nature and the consequences could be dire for the rest of us.

Before we get any further I want you to take a moment to think about a time in your childhood when you were filled with an absolute sense of joy and wonder. My bet is most of you are thinking about a time when you were probably young, quite likely alone, and almost certainly outside.

Maybe it was that trip to the beach when you found a starfish or the feeling of exhilaration when you nailed your first catch on your new fishing rod or the peaceful serenity of lying down on freshly mown grass, watching cloud animals, with the sun warming your hair.

Now, think about the last time your child did those things. I'm hoping that the answer is a very proud "Today!" or at the very least a slightly muted "This week". Just look out the window - look at where we live - this is Godzone and a child who grows up here is privileged to do so.

The sad truth is that in many countries, urbanisation is taking people further and further away from nature's bounty. The United Nations Population Division estimates that by 2030, 65% of the world's population will live in urban areas. Keeping in touch with nature when living in a concrete jungle is an issue not just for city planners, but for parents too.

🍃 Nature deficit disorder
Richard Louv, is author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder and chairman of the Children and Nature Network, a US organisation that aims to encourage children to reconnect with nature.

Louv's point is that children "aren't going out the front door much anymore, let alone into natural settings".

And he's specific about what constitutes real nature: "A soccer field is not nature but the edge of the soccer field, where it gets rough and you see weeds and rocks, is. Digging a hole and finding life, getting physically engaged with the world - that's nature."

The release of his book in 2005 sparked a minor furore across middle-America as the media leapt on the headline-making phrase "nature deficit disorder" and parents, educators and some politicians leapt in to take action. Grass roots movements such as "Leave No Child Inside" are now gaining momentum across the US and are pushing for legislative change to ensure environmental education is given the same prominence as literacy and numeracy.

I certainly don't think we in New Zealand are at the point yet where we need to tackle the issue with such ferocity, but that said, this generation is at more risk of "nature deficit disorder" than any before it. Thankfully our cities aren't concrete jungles with thousands of people living within a square kilometre. Rainforests, beaches, rivers and snow-capped mountains are easily within our grasp. But in the hurly-burly of life in the suburbs, are we forgetting to take advantage of our natural wonders?

🍃 Mother nature as second nature
Caroline Webster is an Australian mum, blogger and co-writer of the book Small Fry - Outdoors, which gives readers inspiration for getting children outside. She says it's never too early to introduce your child to the wonders of nature.  A wee tot will love being put outside in a pram under a tree on a warm day. Shaded by the tree, they'll be entranced by the dappled sunlight peeping through the leaves and the sounds of nature.

As children get older the secret is to "mix magical with practical", to coax them away from the TV. Caroline says when you go outside to do some gardening "suggest that's where the fairies live, or put a couple of pebbles on the ground and say, 'Dragon poo! Let's go hunting for dragons!'" She says when her daughter was young they'd go hunting for bidi-bidi plants (those annoying little spiky fruits that stick to clothing), which she believed were the "arch-enemies of fairies".

Caroline says, "She'd be like Sherlock Holmes looking in the garden for them,  and all the while learning about the environment and conservation."

The challenge for parents according to Caroline is to "rediscover the wonder". When you see a spider in a cobweb point it out and don't be frightened of it yourself. Set aside the time to let your child simply sit and watch. Heading outside, she says, should be second nature - as simple a decision as making a cup of tea or putting on the TV. Mother Nature is the perfect plaything: "She's bold, cheap and loves doing it."

🍃 Why the disconnect?
I quietly sniggered in dismay when I read about a 2002 study in the UK that found the average eight-year-old could identify Pikachu, Metapod and Wigglytuff as characters from the cartoon Pokémon, but he had no idea what an otter, beetle and oak tree were. 

On the other hand, my eight year old has a teacher who has spent a year instilling his class with what I'm sure will be a life-long lesson in noxious weeds. We go for a walk and she proudly points out woolly nightshade and blue morning glory. But I can't get too smug because I know that given the choice she'd rather be playing inside with her Littlest Pet Shop toys.

Indeed, getting kids outside is a challenge for mothers all over the world. In 2009 the American Journal of Play published the results of a survey of 2400 mothers across 16 countries. The number who said their children often  explored nature varied - from as little as 5% in China to 25% in the UK and 45% in France. (New Zealand and Australia were not part of the survey). It was interesting that while 54% of the mothers said that their children were happiest when they were playing outside, the same number admitted wishing they could be more comfortable with their child getting  dirty playing. There's a lesson here ladies - dirt is good!  

There are universal reasons for our disconnect with nature but if you dig deeper you'll find much of this thinking doesn't stack up. Here are some myths: 

  • Technology makes inside seem more fun. Yes, if you give children the choice they may well prefer to sit bleary eyed in front of the box. But here's a novel idea. Turn it off! Caroline Webster says if you ignore the grizzles and actually make your children go outside they will find their own fun. They don't even need lots of props like balls, bikes and trampolines. Try giving them a sheet. They'll soon figure out that it could be a magic carpet or picnic blanket for a tea party with the fairies, or a hidey hole to get away from grouchy Mum! In fact, Caroline says she has found social media incredibly useful for keeping people connected with nature. She says she can't believe how much she's learnt from following the hashtag #playoutdoors on Twitter.
  • It's not safe out there. Caroline says the truth is you're more likely to die inside than out. She says we need to teach our children about responsible risk-taking. "Let them hang in a tree. If they fall out and bang their head there's very little chance they'll actually kill or seriously injure themselves, and they'll very quickly learn how far they can climb safely."She says our ingrained sense of fear of child abduction has been fuelled by media hysteria over reporting the rare cases when they do happen. Besides, being outside gives a child a better sense of self and his own abilities, and with that they can better look after themselves.
  • We don't have the time to go traipsing around the woods! Yes, we live a hectic lifestyle but sometimes we need reminding where we live and how lucky we are to have nature's wonders at our doorstep. Besides, taking the kids for a bush walk is not only good for his soul but good for yours too!   

🍃 A prescription for healthy living
So is "nature deficit disorder" really a diagnosable disorder? Or simply a catch-phrase guaranteed to pique news editors' interest?

Richard Louv isn't alone when he claims "nature deficit disorder" is at least partly responsible for the increases in childhood depression, asthma and obesity. But what's perhaps less well known is that being outside helps reduce the risk of short-sightedness or myopia. For every hour spent outside, the chances of needing glasses drops by 2%.

Dr Justin Sherwin of Cambridge University has found short-sighted children spend an average 3.7 fewer hours a week outdoors than those with normal vision. Scientists don't know why that happens but there are a couple of theories - the sun's natural light triggers the release of dopamine in the brain which stops the eyeball growing out of shape, or vitamin D from the sun helps protect against myopia. There's even speculation that looking at the horizon while outdoors can be advantageous.

And the benefits are more than merely physical. According to the Children's Nature Institute in Los Angeles children who take part in environmental education programmes at school do better in maths, reading, writing and social studies and have fewer discipline problems. 

🍃 Raising conservationists
The flipside of raising children who don't experience true nature is that we're not raising a generation of future caretakers of this precious Earth. Richard Louv says it best: "Passion does not arrive on videotape or CD, passion is personal. Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the heart. If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species - the child in nature."

That's why nurturing a love of nature isn't only good for their health, it is essential for the health of their own kids, and their kids' kids.

William Bird is health adviser to Natural England and he says children under the age of 11 will make a connection with nature and this will stay with them for life, but "if they are not exposed by the age of 12, they will never make that link, indeed they may well fear [nature]."

And that raises another point - eco-phobia. Caroline Webster says, "The language we're using around our children is scaring the living daylights out of them."

Indeed, if children only hear about the environment in terms such as "climate change" and "global warming" they will perceive the world as a scary place. As parents we need to lead by example and ensure that our future environmental policy-makers have a love of the earth, not a fear of it.

There's a quote I love from poet and environmentalist Gary Snyder who said, "Nature is not a place to visit, it is home." Sometimes we just need a reminder to take that step out the front door.

This summer I want to scrub the dirt from under my children's nails, to sit with them and make a daisy chain, to kiss better their grazed knees and to do lots of washing of grass-stained clothes.

Ideas for family adventures 
🍃 Set the alarm, pack up the kids early in their pyjamas and head  to the beach to watch the sunrise. Pack a thermos of hot chocolate and a warm blanket.
🍃 Make a sand silhouette by trickling dry sand around a child lying on wet sand - when she stands up an outline of her body is left behind.
🍃 Set up a backyard obstacle course.
🍃 Take a kid fishing.
🍃 Set up a bike parade for local kids.  
🍃 Swing in a hammock.
🍃 Put on an outdoor movie night.

Rochelle Gillespie is a mother of three. She's proud to say that on a recent trip with her kids to Auckland's Cornwall Park she hiked up her skirt, clambered over two fences and scaled a hillside, all while wearing high-heeled boots.   



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