Nature was a big part of my life growing up. Living in the country, I was often wandering around the town, riding my bike along country roads and walking along the railway track. We regularly went for family drives through forests, farm land and along the coast line. As a child I was regularly told to "get outside and play" rather than sit inside and read books, which I really enjoyed doing. I grew up knowing there was something good about the outside air, the adventure that came with roaming around, the discoveries I could make by exploring the countryside around my home. That was a whole generation again now.
We are hearing a lot at the moment about this generation's children and young people spending time indoors, not getting outside and enjoying nature and that fresh air that is so good for us all. We are hearing that they are spending time indoors, not with beloved books, but on digital devices. We are hearing about the disconnect that is happening when children become focused inwardly and are not connecting with each other like we did in those good old days. We are hearing about a lack of physical exercise as children learn to live through their technology. We are hearing about an over-protectiveness by adults resulting in a lack of independence and self confidence in children.
I recently came across the work of an educator, researcher and writer from the United States, Cheryl Charles, PhD. She has been writing about this phenomenon, which she refers to as Nature Deficit Disorder. While acknowledging that it's not a proper disorder (as in a medically diagnosed disorder), she convincingly argues that changes in society and childhood have led to a range of unforeseen consequences like those described above. She suggests that excessive screen time with accompanying reduced time outside is leading to sedentary lifestyles which then leads to overweight and obese children. This unfortunately tends to have a domino effect and lead to a whole range of other health problems.
The Benefits of Play in Nature
Cheryl talks about the research still sorting out what is the cause and what is the effect of these problems. She does identify a number of benefits of nature that are difficult to argue with, including:
1. Benefits for the mind, including thinking skills, creativity and problem solving.
2. Learning to collaborate and work with others on projects.This also builds social skills where children learn to get along and develop relationships and friendships.
3. Physical activity. Being outside means exploring, climbing, running and in many other ways testing out one's physical capacities. In this way a level of physical fitness occurs.
4. Learning personal responsibility. This includes learning to care for the earth and understanding one's role in effects on the environment.
These benefits can all be lost if children are not interacting in the natural world. While we could argue that some of these benefits can be gained in other ways, indoors and through digital technology. Equally we can acknowledge that physical activity really is best undertaken outdoors. Understanding the environment also best happens when we are in the natural environment, feeling it, learning about it and finding our place in it.
Cheryl also suggests that developmentally there are different stages that children and young people go through in relation to their interactions with nature. For example:
Infants: Walking outside, hearing noises and moving can be calming for babies.
Toddlers: The curiosity of toddlers can be tapped into when outdoors. They can jump in puddles, notice animals and feel the grass under their feet.
Older children: Playhouses and hiding spots can be great fun for children as they are able to explore the world around them.
Teenagers: Being outside with peers can be an important part of teenagers' lives.They might be interested in physical activities such as swimming in rivers, camping and even participating in environmental projects.
These examples highlight a key benefit of the outdoors that is missing from the list above - fun. Being outdoors and enjoying nature can be great fun. It can also force us to slow down as we listen to the sounds of nature. It can help us to re-balance and be more in tune with ourselves and the world around us. We can start to think about our role in the world and our impact on the environment around us.This can help us tap into aspects of our spirituality or the meaning we place on our life in a way that is less likely when sitting inside in front of a computer. As adults we can model this for our children and teenagers, helping them to discover some of the joys of our long ago childhoods.
If you would like to read more about Nature Deficit Disorder, the ongoing research, and the work being undertaken to find ways to incorporate nature into our lives more, you can find Cheryl's website here