Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Children & Nature: Australian writer captures what conservation needs from our youth

Occasionally I will come across an article that needs no journalistic rephrasing, no "spin" or retelling.  It is succinct and delivers a message that must be presented undilluted.

Such is the case with an article I came across in the Opinion section of ABC News (Australia).  Written by educator and naturalist Warren McClaren, it addresss the impact on our children when there is a disconnect between ourselves and nature.

Growing up as I did in suburban Southern California, I can look back on my experiences with nature in a very positive way and I can see the roots of my current passion for preservation and conservation of our natural resources stemming from those early moments.  I was not someone who lived 24/7 in the outdoors, but I came in contact with enough to leave a lasting impact.  And, sadly, that is much more than what many children are experiencing today.

Children are hearing about threats and negative impacts on nature and they are voicing their concern.  And that is good.  But if those feelings exist in a bubble, devoid of the first hand knowledge, can we expect their concerns to carry them into adulthood? 

 Without nature, the little children suffer
Warren McLaren ABC Environment 12 Nov 2012

Most adults climbed trees and played outdoors when they were children. But today's young people don't play outdoors like their parents. It's an omission with grave implications.
We come alive for what we hold near and dear. It's hard to be impassioned for a cause which feels remote.

Charities know this. It's why they bring impoverished third world villagers, or cancer suffers, into our lounge room, via the telly: if they can make us connect with the issue, we are more inclined to support it.

Environmental activists are emboldened to speak up because they perceive they are about to lose something. Something they truly, deeply connect with.

"In wildness is the preservation of the world." With these few words, American philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, succinctly captured humanity's fate. Nature is unruly, untamed. But it is also our future.

Yet we so often talk of 'The Environment' as if it exists elsewhere else, a distant entity that humankind is not connected to. A naughty, wild child, whom we might put in a room and close the door on, for a bit of 'time out'.

We may have disconnected from nature, but we are delusional if we think we can live without it. Ignoring the value and contribution of nature to our well being is, quite literally, life threatening. 

But ignoring is exactly what we're doing. In his seminal 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, author Richard Louv, gave this ignorance a term: Nature Deficit Disorder. While not a medically recognised condition, there is an ever expanding body of work which supports Louv's central theme: that deprivation of a relationship with nature is fraught with multiple health and welfare issues. For people. And planet. 

There's head-shaking anecdotal evidence of our disconnect with nature, such as the story I was told of kids too scared to play in their own backyard, because they'd heard that insects wee and poo out there.

Scientific corroboration is also abundant. The Children and Nature Network has a collection of research papers, published between 2009 and 2011, which explored benefits to kids from contact with the outdoors. The list of abstracts alone runs to 68 pages.

Research such as Planet Ark's recent examinations (pdf) of Australian childhood interaction with nature today, relative to a generation ago. One of the findings being that, "64 per cent of respondents reported climbing trees when they were children as compared to less than 20 per cent of their children." (pdf) 

The Danish Society for Nature Conservation observed very similar findings in their survey of 2,000 Danes:"59 per cent of grandparents reported visiting a natural setting every day during the summer when they were children, as compared to... just 26 per cent of children today." (pdf) 

Four hundred German and Lithuanian high school students participated in research that found "children's emotional affinity towards nature was a significant predictor of children's willingness for pro-environmental commitment."

A related study in the USA set out to "understand what leads children to continue participating in natural history-oriented professions/education/hobbies as a young adult." The research concluded that a such vocational choice results from "early childhood and is driven by direct, informal and unstructured experiences with nature (from wildlands to vacant lots)."

For many Aussies their introduction to camping and outside adventures began with involvement in Scouts and Guides. Five years ago the international Scout movement celebrated 100 years of life in the great outdoors. But it was a bittersweet centenary. In 2001, Australia had 2,126 Scout Groups, yet by 2011 this had shrunk to just 1,524. A noteworthy decline, coming on the back of a significant modernisation drive within Scouting.

Where did all those budding young Baden Powells go? Inside.

For 98 per cent of Australian children, "watching TV or videos out of school hours remains the most common recreational activity of children aged 5 to 14 years." So revealed the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in the 2003 study, Children's Participation in Cultural and Leisure Activities.

A follow up report in 2006 noted that "[N]ot only was the participation rate highest for 'watching television, videos or DVDs', on average, children involved spent more time on this activity than on any of the other selected activities." In a study published last year, the ABS reported that whereas a tad over half of all children were playing games online in 2006, by 2009 and this had increased to just shy of 70 per cent. The ABS also noted that 17 per cent of kids 8 to 14 had a computer in their bedroom.

Researchers at the University of Sydney discovered that "Children who spend more time in outdoor sport activities and less time watching TV have better retinal microvascular structure." Retinal blood vessels have been linked to cardiovascular disease risk factors and blood pressure.

A couple of years ago the Australian national depression initiative, Beyond Blue, engaged Associate Professor Mardie Townsend of Deakin University's Faculty of Health, Medicine, Nursing and Behavioural Sciences to investigate any health benefits from including the outdoors in our lives. She observed, "Experiencing nature in an outdoor setting can help tackle not only physical health problems such as obesity and coronary heart disease, but also mental health problems - and there is plenty of evidence to support the claim." Laying out that evidence in her 160-page report.

Drawing on the work of Kurt Hahn, pioneer of experiential learning and the guy behind Outward Bound and the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme, Expeditionary Learning schools cite as one of their core principles, "direct respectful relationship with the natural world refreshes the human spirit and teaches the important ideas of recurring cycles and cause and effect. Students learn to become stewards of the earth and of future generations."

Developing this early connection with nature is not just some bucolic vision of the 'nuts and berries' crowd. It also has a deep and profound influence on children's intellectual health as well. Richard Louv's book is packed with examples, including the school who educated their kids out amongst local rivers, mountains and forests, "96 per cent of [their] students meet or exceed state standards for math problem-solving—compared to only 65 per cent of eighth graders at comparable middle schools."

I'm not suggesting that everyone need spend 738 days hugging a tree like Julia Hill or Miranda Gibson. There are a host of mainstream opportunities for our children to learn about, and from, the outdoors. There's school endorsed outdoor education experiences, or Stephanie Alexander's Kitchen Garden programs as currently embraced by 267 Australian primary schools. From horticultural therapy to care farming. Or Scouts and Guides. And let's not forget family weekends camping in the bush; or simply get down and dirty, rolling in the grass and watching bees in the backyard or nearby park, with Mum and Dad.

For as William Shakespeare penned, "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin."

Source: ABC News

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