At dinner one evening, my younger son Matthew, then 10, said quite seriously: “Dad, how come it was more fun when you were a kid?” Like many parents, I do tend to romanticise my childhood — and children today do have plenty of fun, of a different sort. But my son was serious; he felt that he had missed out on something important. He was right.
Many people of about my age, baby boomers or older, were inclined towards a kind of free, natural play. I knew my Missouri woods and fields; I knew every bend in the creek and dip in the beaten dirt paths. I wandered those woods even in my dreams.
Such experiences were as likely to occur in the UK as in the US, although the settings differ — a prairie windbreak of trees in the American Midwest, a hedgerow on an English heath. Even in the most urban areas, children had more freedom to experience nearby nature in a park or on patches of undeveloped land. In this era of children’s pagers and instant messaging, natural play seems to many like a quaint artefact of a distant age.
Children today are aware of global threats to the environment but their physical contact, their intimacy, with nature is fading. A child can probably tell you about the Amazon rainforest but not about the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude or lay in a field listening to the wind and watching the clouds move.
“I like to play indoors better ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are,” one ten-year-old student told me recently. Our increasingly high-tech environment offers young people a new world of possibilities but at what price? It’s pretty difficult to experience a sense of wonder while playing Grand Theft Auto.
“Times have changed,” says Tina Kafka, a teacher and mother of three in San Diego, California. “Even if kids have all the unstructured time in the world, they are not outside playing. They are inside with their video games.” She recognises that carefully planned activities pale in comparison with more spontaneous experiences in her children’s long-term memories. Like many parents, she knows that playing independently outdoors didn’t come naturally to her kids, but she lacked a language to describe the profound change that she sensed.
In Last Child in the Woods, first published in the US four years ago and updated for publication this month in Britain, I suggested the phrase “nature-deficit disorder” as a way to define a widespread problem. The phrase is not a medical diagnosis (perhaps it should be) but a handy way to describe today’s increasing alienation from nature.
An expanding body of research in the UK, the United States, Scandinavia, Australia and elsewhere suggests the extent of this trend and the impact if it continues.
Yesterday a survey of 3,000 parents by the National Trust revealed that playing in a garden or a park was their favourite childhood memory, followed by building a den and seeing wildlife in its natural habitat — yet, says the Trust, 38 per cent of children now spend less than an hour a day outdoors.
In March this year, the Report to Natural England on Childhood and Nature: a Survey on Changing Relationships with Nature Across Generations
measured differences in nature contact between children today and their parents’ generation. The researchers found that fewer than 10 per cent of children played in natural places, such as woodlands and heaths, compared with 40 per cent of adults who did so when they were young. The researchers also reported that 75 per cent of adults claimed to have had a “patch of nature” near their homes when they were children, and that more than half went there at least once a week.
A survey by BBC Wildlife Magazine, reported in 2008, found that many children in the UK sample group could not identify common species, including bluebells and frogs; these children ranked playing in the countryside as their least popular way of spending spare time. The report led Sir David Attenborough to warn: “Nobody is going to protect the natural world unless they understand it.”
Lest anyone should consider nature-deficit to be only a Western phenomenon, an article this year in the American Journal of Play reported the results of a survey of mothers of 2,400 children in 16 countries. The percentages of mothers who said that their children often explored nature were lowest in Brazil (18 per cent), Indonesia (7 per cent) and China (5 per cent).
Why is this happening? In my interviews with American parents, they gave various everyday reasons, including disappearing access to natural areas, competition from television and computers, dangerous traffic, more homework and other time pressures. Most of all, though, they cited fear of strangers, as round-the-clock news conditions them to believe in an epidemic of child-snatchings. One father told me: “I have a rule. I want to know where my kid is 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I want to know where that kid is. Which house. Which square foot. Which telephone number.” Such comments are widespread, despite evidence that the real number of kidnappings by strangers is small relative to the impression that the news and entertainment media create.
These are no small barriers. I felt that fear, too, as a parent, so my boys did not have the kind of free-range childhood that I did. But when Matthew made me aware of the nature gap in his life, I tripled my efforts to get both my sons outside more. My wife and I encouraged them to build forts in the canyon behind our house (within eyesight) and we took them hiking and fishing, standing back to allow them to play as independently as possible, as long as they were relatively safe.
Although times have changed, we all have to do what we can, in new ways and old, to give our children the gifts of nature.While some children do just fine without nature, a growing number of studies have indicated that nature can offer profound enrichment to young lives.
Environmental psychologists report that simply being in a room with a view of nature can help to protect children against stress, and that the protective impact of nearby nature is strongest for the most vulnerable children — those experiencing the highest levels of stressful life events. Mind, the mental health charity, commissioned a recent study that compared the benefits of a 30-minute walk in a country park with a walk in an indoor shopping centre on people with depression. It found that after the country walk, 71 per cent of participants reported lower levels of depression, while only 45 per cent experienced a decrease after walking in the shopping centre.
Researchers at the University of Illinois have correlated direct exposure to nature with the relief of symptoms of attention-deficit disorders. Studies also suggest that children’s creativity, learning and test scores are stimulated in schools with green play areas, or that emphasise experiential learning. Swedish researchers reported that children at “all-weather schools” who played outside every day regardless of weather conditions had better motor co-ordination and more ability to concentrate.
Physical health is also affected. A nationwide survey in Sweden indicated that children who spent at least six hours a week outside had fewer absences due to illness. The Swedish National Institute of Public Health notes research suggesting that “children who are out in the natural environment are healthier than children who are mostly indoors and do not have access to the nature environment in the pre-school yard”.
Greener neighbourhoods may also help to reduce child obesity. In December 2008 the American Journal of Preventive Medicine published the results of a two-year study that followed 3,800 inner-city children; researchers found that trees and other vegetation were associated with slower increases in children’s body mass.
Why does nature appear to have such a powerful impact on health and wellbeing? One possibility is that when a child is in a natural setting, he or she is likely to be using all the senses simultaneously. E.O. Wilson, a Harvard University scientist and Pulitzer Prize winner, goes farther, proposing his “biophilia hypothesis”. He defines biophilia as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life”and argues that human beings have an innate affinity for the natural world, probably with a biological basis. The theory, though not universally embraced by biologists, is supported by more than a decade of research. Simply put, children need to go outside and get their hands wet and their feet muddy.
Of course, no one believes that nature experiences are a panacea for everything that ails children. Life is not that simple. Also, much of the research currently available is relatively new and describes correlations rather than causes and effects — but, as Howard Frumkin, head of the National Center for Environmental Health in the US, says, “we need more research but we know enough to act”.
A movement to heal the broken bond between children and nature is already growing internationally. More than 50 regional campaigns have sprung up in the US and Canada over the past three years. The No Child Left Inside Act of 2009, designed to help educators to get children out of doors, is moving through the US Congress (the House approved a version of the Bill last year). In November, Sesame Street, the children’s television show, will launch a year of special “nature” programming. For the first time in four decades the programme’s set will be redesigned, adding features of the natural world.
In the UK, several initiatives are setting good examples. To coincide with its report this week, the National Trust is organising more than a thousand “wild child” events to encourage interest in local wildlife. It has also compiled a list of “Ten things to do before you’re 10”, including going on an insect hunt and hosting a teddy bears’ picnic.
Nature’s Capital, a report issued by the National Trust last year, calls for local funding for “wellbeing prescriptions”. The charity Mind recommends “green exercise” to be considered as a clinically valid treatment, and the UK’s growing Green Gym movement brings families together to exercise through nature restoration projects. This served as partial inspiration for an initiative launched in the US by the Children & Nature Network, called Family Nature Clubs.
Last year, Chip and Ashley Donahue, parents of three in Roanoke, Virginia, decided to start getting their kids — and themselves — back to nature at weekends. One day their five-year-old son asked: “Why are we the only family having so much fun?” So the Donahues created a free outdoor adventure club for families in the Roanoke Valley. What began with one family spread quickly. Thanks to word of mouth and two local newspaper stories, the membership grew to more than 170 families. These families, two or more at a time, agree to meet each other at the weekend to hike, do some gardening or even work on projects such as stream reclamation.
What if tens of thousands of families were to create nature clubs or “green gyms”? With the help of government agencies, regional campaigns, nature centres, educators, college students and conservationists, they might accomplish what seems impossible today: the end of nature-deficit disorder.
A week ago my son Matthew, who asked such a pertinent question a decade ago, graduated from college and left for his summer job as a fishing guide on Kodiak Island in Alaska. He may have missed out on some of the childhood nature adventures that I enjoyed, but he is making up for lost time. It’s never too late to have fun outdoors.