Something has happened to the connection between Children and Nature.
"Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment--but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading"
According to a survey done by Environment Agency Natural England, less than 10% of children nowadays play in natural areas like country fields, wooded areas or heaths. Compare this to 40% of adults who claim having had this opportunity to play in natural settings when they were young.
Looking at these statistics, we cannot but agree with Richard Louv that there is an imbalance in the relationship between children and nature and our children are suffering from Nature Deficit Disorder.
What has happened to the connection between children and nature?
Over a generation ago, children walked a mile to school--unsupervised. Nowadays, children are transported by bus or cars. We would think twice about letting a child walk to school--alone.
My mother in law told us that she grew up in the 1930's without fear of the woods that surrounded her home in Auburn, Massachusetts.
" At eleven, I thought nothing of playing alone in the forest behind us or of packing a lunch, walking to the pond and rowing a boat across the water to the fields on the other side. When the sky started to darken or when I got hungry, I would hop onto the boat, row myself across the pond and head back home. My mother never showed shock or surprise at what I did. It seemed to be a very natural thing to do.I never felt fear. My parents would have been surprised if I ever said I was scared."
There is no doubt we would be shocked nowadays by the wisdom of
parents who allow an eleven year old to row a boat across a pond all by
herself, without a life jacket, without adult supervision, alone in a
wooded area where all kinds of dangers are possible-- getting lost,
drowned, being kidnapped and murdered. These are the fears of our modern
culture,magnified tenfold by our instant electronic media. What looms
over our parental conscience nowadays is the threat of nature.
Statistics show that per capita visits to U.S. National Parks have been declining since 1987. Studies demonstrate that about 98% of the decline in Park visitations can be explained by the following factors: rise in fuel prices, home movie rentals, video games and internet use.
According to Louv, the rise in Attention Deficit Disorder may be linked to Nature Deficit. ADHD should be viewed as Nature Deficit Disorder. The relationship between children and nature has been skewed by the realities of our modern electronic world.
How does Nature Deficit or Deprivation Affect the Brain?
According to Jonah Lehrer of The Boston Globe, urban environments impair basic mental processes. In an urban setting, with its crowded streets, the brain's memory is taxed; it loses self-control. Research shows that cities with their noise and pollution dull mental thinking. The constant bombardment of stimuli overtaxes the attention apparatus of the brain.
Natural setting, by contrast, relaxes the brain. It does not make the same demands on human functions as do neon lights, blinking cars and pollution.
One study actually shows that apartments overlooking green space( trees, flowers, greenery) experience fewer episodes of domestic violence. By contrast, crowded urban settings have increased levels of aggression.
New research actually shows that nature is essential for the brain. Hospital patients recover more quickly in a setting with greenery, grass and trees. Even fleeting exposures to natural settings outside the windows can improve brain performance.One study demonstrates that just looking at a natural scene can improve scores on tests of attention and memory.
Nature also has a calming effect on the brain. It can catch our attention without overloading our brain. That is why thriving cities like New York and Paris are filled with central parks. Paris is graced with several parks that are legacies from the renaissance aristocracy. These favorite haunts allow Parisians the mental breaks necessary for restoration of brain machinery.
Child environment and behavior researcher at the University of Illinois, Andrea Faber Taylor explains that the human brain has two forms of attention. One is directed attention which is the effort and concentration used for work and studies; the other is involuntary attention which occurs during automatic responses, like getting up to soothe a crying baby.
Because directed attention does not last forever, it needs to be restored and the best avenues for restoration is nature. The best antidote to stress would be views of green settings or green space that capture our involuntary attention, thus giving directed attention a rest.Her studies have shown that children in public housing who have access to green space or green view perform better emotionally and cognitively.
There is also a spiritual component to the relationship between children and nature. Exposure to nature helps children understand the primal connection between life and spirit. It allows them to develop an appreciation of the invisible world. My grand-daughter talks to trees and flowers, sings with the birds as naturally as she would with her baby brother. For her, everything teems with life. This sense that we are a part of the world around us is the basis of a spiritual life.
Perhaps by allowing our children the grace to nurture a connection with nature, we are granting them the freedom to develop intrinsic motivation - the ability to recognize what it is they want and to develop the desire and focus to achieve their goals.
Such is not the case with children dominated by an over-emphasized school agenda. The rise in schooling during the 20th Century is seen by some to be responsible for a corresponding increase in anxiety and stress in children. There is a link between extrinsic motivation and depression.
How Can We Increase the Connection Between Children and Nature?
Louv states emphatically that time with Nature is not an option. "Time in Nature is not leisure time; it's an essential investment in our children's health."
Helping our children develop a connection with Nature is not something we can put on the back burner, something we will take on after homework, tutoring sessions, computer class, music lessons, leadership seminars or public speaking contests.
The experience of children and nature has to be part of daily life--the opportunity not only for playing in green space, but also the opportunity for being alone, having the chance to daydream, to wonder , to just be there.
This is the experience of Terabithea, that magical sanctuary for Jess and Leslie in Katherine Patterson's 1978 novel, Bridge to Terabithea. We all need our bridges to Terabithea, especially our children.
There are several ways we can ignite the connection between children and nature. Louv makes several suggestions in his book:
a) Give your children a pet. Allow them to enjoy the experience of caring for animals, playing with them.
b) Replace part of your lawn with native plants. Maintain a birdbath.
c) Help your children find a special place of their own--beneath a backyard willow or heady oak. Let this place be your child's sanctuary.
d) Make the daily Green Hour a new family tradition.
e) Go hiking with your children--often.
f) Build a tree house or a fort in your backyard.
These and many more suggestions can be found in Louv's book--which I heartily
Enhancing the connection between children and nature strengthens family
bonds, builds self-reliance in childrenand prepares the new generation
for stewardship of the land.
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