Children and Nature

February 7, 2012

On October 13, 2008 a 15 year old boy named Brandon Crisp walked out of his house because his parents had taken away his Xbox video game; after a three week search, his body was finally found. The November 19, 2008 issue of the NY Times described the huge increase of medications that are prescribed to young people. Parks and natural areas that once rang with the shouts of children are now devoid of kids. Change has been happening to society and it does not look good for our future.

From the beginning of time we have been connected to nature. We, of course, are literally nature’s children but for the first time in history that connection threatens to be broken by the majority of an entire generation and perhaps generations to come. When I read Richard Louv’s landmark book, I was surprised at how insidious and widespread the problem had become. I guess that I was living in a bubble. My family and friends were out in nature all the time. I was shocked to learn that perhaps the majority of mothers were afraid to let their children outside to play.

Since reading the book I have been including issues in Louv’s book in my lectures. The feedback is always one way. Most children are not playing by themselves out in nature. Almost all outside activity is adult supervised. Soccer moms are a relatively recent phenomenon but adult supervision seems to be essential nowadays. One person described these diamond shaped yellow road signs which say “Slow - children playing” as being out of date. They should say “No children playing”. Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, cites recent research at Harvard and numerous US, Canadian, British and European institutions. The findings are that if children play in nature, (I don’t mean organized soccer or cement playgrounds), climb trees, build forts and dams in creeks and go exploring, here is what happens: they have less obesity, less attention deficit disorder, less depression, less suicide, less alcohol and drug abuse and less bullying and higher marks. If one were to make a list of the main problems facing that age group and indeed any age group, it would be the same list. And nature is free.

I grew up in Toronto. My buddies and I had bicycles and public transportation. We had no problem getting into nature every weekend and holiday and even some days after school.

The fear of letting young people play out in nature is tragically misplaced. Over 95% of harm done to kids by an adult is by someone the family knows - the father, the uncle, the man across the street; it is highly unlikely that a dirty old man will be lurking behind a bush in a bit of nature for months waiting for a luckless victim to possibly pass by. At any rate the normal thing is for kids to play in groups. This of course should be encouraged as there is certainly safety in numbers.

So which holds more serious risk for young people? Obesity with its early onset of diabetes, possibly early heart disease, being medicated for ADHD and depression, committing suicide, falling into drug and alcohol abuse, or, on the other hand, playing out in nature? What about Internet predators and bullying on line? Those are dangerous and deadly issues and they are not uncommon. Let us worry about risks, but real risks not bogus ones. Just think about that list of issues and how expensive they are to society in medical costs, policing, the justice system and jails. Society would save money if schools and families put greatly increased resources into the nature-child connection.
Children’s brains have been invaded by an alien. This alien goes by the name of electronics. It comes in the form of large televisions, computer screens, hand held games, and all the way down to cell phones and text messaging. My Orwellian fear for the future is that this generation will view all phenomena including human relations as information on a screen. I hasten to add that I am not referring to all of the younger generation. I know hundreds of kids to whom these fears do not apply. However, there is an increasing number of kids living in a virtual world. The virtual world is by definition not the real world. When this screen-trapped generation grows up, how will they vote? What kind of parents will they be?

Nikko Tinbergen, a bird behaviour scientist, did a study of herring gulls. He created large dummy gull eggs and placed one in a simulated nest beside a real nest with eggs. When the parent returned she would see the spectacular artificial egg which outshone her own smaller, eggs and would try to brood the fake egg even though it was awkward, and therefore she let her own eggs die. This phenomenon is known as super-stimulae.

I also heard that potato beetles, although they thrive on a diet of potato leaves, have a passion for petunias. The catch is, petunias are poisonous to the beetles. But if given a choice, the beetles will go for the petunias and die. The obvious moral to the story is that we are confronted with superstimulae constantly, especially young people. Many of the choices we are given are bad for us and for society but we pick them anyway because our inner weaknesses are stimulated by outside forces to do so. For at least a million years humans have been hard-wired for stimulation of the brain with seratonins, dopamine and other pleasure-inducing chemicals. The adrenalin-inducing risks in killing large mammals to bring home the bacon, or fighting enemy clans to protect the family had a powerful evolutionary function. We don't need to do this very much in the 21st century so youth turn to risky sports, risky behaviour and computer games to feed their brains with the Paleolithic rush. The need to have sex and devour calories have obvious evolutionary advantages in perpetuating the species. The 21st century result of this hard-wiring is pornography, unwanted pregnancies and super-sized gluttony.

I remember giving lectures back in the 1960s describing a new species that was being created, particularly by TV. I called this species homo sapiens teenager consumerensis. They were trained to require special food, drink, clothing, music and so that set them apart from adults. Using human vices such as greed, lust and an attraction to violence, the promoters of the products turned the young people into market targets. Unlike all previous generations of young people their main role in society was to be self-indulgent. This process was a great commercial success and continues today with even more expertise and intensity. I remember saying back in the 60s that in the future some of the parents’ ideas of family values will be based on the cartoon the Flintstones because these children were raised by TV. Well, it is now the 21st century and those TV kids are now parents or even grandparents. This may at least partially explain the parents’ alienation from nature. Their “natural” or unnatural tendency is to encourage their offspring into the video world. This screen world is designed by some of the smartest most creative minds on the planet. They know all the hot buttons and superstimulae for each age group. Most kids don’t have a chance of resisting. If they do resist they are branded as uncool. Recent studies have shown that constant and intense engagement with electronics is rewiring the children’s brains. Addiction is a real possibility. Even sweeter, sexier, faster stimulae are required to keep up the enthusiasm and sell the product. How will it all end? Will it ever end? How can going for a walk in the woods or watching a turtle ever compete with this gigantic juggernaut?

In my opinion this issue is more important than the economy which has its downs and also its ups. Or terrorism, which is a police matter and does not really affect most humans. E. F. Schumacher said that the real problems facing the planet are not economic, they are not technical, they are philosophical. Which kind of philosophy will these screen world young people have when they are building future families, communities, and nature? Will they care about endangered species? Or ecosystems, when they can call up virtual spotted owls on the screen? We must rebuild the nature-child connection. We must bring the boots back into the bushes. It is essential for healthy bodies, minds, spirits and society.

It has been said that the average North American young person can recognize over 1,000 corporate logos. However they don't know the names of their neighbours of other species ... even 10 common trees and birds. I was asked, if I had one wish for young people, what would it be? I replied that every Canadian (in fact, North American or world) youth would get to know the names of their wild neighbours ... maybe 20 to 50 of them. If you can't name someone or something how can you care about them or it?  The organization Earth Rangers is combining the power of entertainment and children's natural bond with animals to engage and motivate millions of children to adopt sustainable practices.

Earth Rangers' website is "inspiring children with a lasting passion to build a better future". The Children Nature Network <> provides a critical link between researchers and individuals, educators and organizations dedicated to children's health and well-being. Their "Leave No Child Inside" Campaign is being launched in numerous North American communities.
There are fledgling movements springing up all over the place. Some schools and boards are encouraging nature study and field trips, etc. All of these efforts, however, are like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike striving to hold back the aforementioned juggernaut of commercialized youth culture.

The efforts to bring kids back to nature will have succeeded when once again the parks and meadows and woodlands ring with the sounds of young people enjoying themselves in nature (without adult supervision) during most of their leisure hours. Computers are, of course, necessary in the modern world, but we need a balance. More time in nature would obviously benefit adults as well.
Because the cost of the social ills brought about in part by the "nature deficit disorder" are so high, it would pay society to greatly increase budgets for outdoor education. Back in the 1970s when there were slightly higher budgets my wife, Birgit, and I would help to lead week-long canoe trips organized by the high school where we both taught. We would see misbehaving "yahoos" (usually boys) be transformed into helpful and caring individuals by the end of the trip. I have no doubt that many of society's expensive ills would be alleviated if every high school child spent a week in nature every year. Two weeks would be better. Other projects could be initiated. Teacher nature clubs could be organized in which perhaps like-minded teachers from a given district could get together for half a day each month to do some nature exploring. If the teachers don't feel it in their hearts they can never convey the enthusiasm for nature to their students.
Family nature clubs could be organized on a similar basis ... perhaps half a Saturday or Sunday each month. If families are involved then transportation and liability issues should not be a problem. Although my parents were not naturalists we drove to a bit of nature and went for hikes every Sunday afternoon. One half day spent out in nature seems like a reasonable proposition for families. The benefits would be well worth it. If young people spend around 40 hours per week gazing at some screen, surely they could spend 2-3 hours a week out in nature.

There is a movement spearheaded by the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia to create gardens in school grounds. This will be a safe and economical way to get children outdoors and engage them with the realities of the natural world. Our local elementary school on Salt Spring Island could not afford a manufactured playground at first. So the children played during recess and lunch hour in the neighbouring woods. They played tag in the bushes, climbed trees and got muddy in the little creek. Then the money for the playground and "jungle gym" was found. After that the children's behaviour deteriorated; there was more quarreling and bullying. Nature really works wonders.
This problem is so large that it needs addressing on many fronts by governments, school boards, schools, NGOs, individual families and by the kids themselves. Where there is no will there is no way, but as the more optimistic saying goes "where there is a will there is a way".

Robert Bateman