by Richard Louv
Not long ago, from a vantage point on a high bluff, Carol Birrell watched a group of high school students hike through a park bordered on one side by a bay on the blue Pacific and on the other by a subtropical ecosystem.
Birrell, who teaches nature education at the Centre for Education Research, University of Western Sydney, described the scene: “All had their heads lowered and backs bent with eyes focused on their feet like blinkered horses.” She was reminded of how children walk along fixated on their mobile phone screens. Not more than 100 metres from the hikers, in the bay, a dolphin was slowly circled by three other dolphins. They were splashing loudly. And then it happened: “A tiny vapour spout joining the group of larger spouts. A dolphin had given birth!”
The students had walked right past this once-in-a lifetime event without looking up.
Surely many other people on such an outing would have turned and looked. But in an increasingly distracting virtual environment, lots of us spend as much or more time blocking out our senses than using and growing them. “What are all of us missing out on when we rush through the bush, rush through life?” Birrell wonders.
At least these students made it to the sea.
In San Diego, where I live, Oceans Discovery Institute, a nature education group, conducted an informal study of local inner city children and found that approximately 90 per cent of these children did not know how to swim, 95 per cent had never been in a boat and 34 per cent had never been to the Pacific Ocean – less than 20 minutes away.
Among the similarities between Americans and Australians is a shared reputation for being an outdoors-oriented people. But Australians (who live in the world’s most urbanised nation), like Americans, are experiencing what I’ve called nature-deficit disorder. That’s not a medical diagnosis, but a metaphor.
In both countries, physical activity is decreasing and screen-based activity is increasing. The pace of that change increases as children get older, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. One in ten children today play outside once a week or less, and nearly one in four parents say their children have never climbed a tree, according to Australia’s Planet Ark.
In 2007-08 the ABS National Health Survey found one-quarter of Australian children aged 5 to 17 years were either overweight or obese. This proportion has remained stable with updated results from the 2011-12 ABS Australian Health Survey.
In Sydney, researchers found 12-year-olds with the highest levels of close-up work activity and lowest levels of outdoor activity were two to three times more likely than their peers to develop myopia.
We also know more about the upside of nature experience, specifically.
Research around the world indicates a correlation between time spent in nature with reduced symptoms of ADHD and depression, and improved mental cognition and creativity.
A study by Kathleen Bagot, a researcher at Monash University in Melbourne, suggests the higher the level of vegetation around the school, the more highly children rate that environment as “restorative.”
Nature experiences can also build social capital. Researchers at the University of New South Wales found community gardens were effective in promoting neighbourhood renewal in public high-rise housing estates in inner Sydney, and determined that the gardens created “a greater sense of belonging, friendship and generosity amongst the gardeners and a sense of community,” breaking down cultural barriers as well as promoting “good nutrition principles.”
This is just a sampling of the good research coming out of Australia. Public awareness about such benefits is spreading. Across Australia and several other countries a multitude of inspiring campaigns and programs is springing up. Paediatricians are beginning to prescribe nature. Urban planners are once again considering the nurturing of nature-rich neighbourhoods as a way to prevent disease and restore health. Conservationists are viewing urban regions as potential engines of biodiversity.
As for education, University of Western Sydney associate professor Tonia Gray argues for more nature-based experiences in the national curriculum and a mandate for every child to experience the natural world based not only on science but “on direct, visceral and personal engagement with nature.”
Last year, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, representing thousands of conservation organisations from around the world, passed a resolution called the Child’s Right to Connect with Nature and to a Healthy Environment, which recognises that “…children, since they are an inalienable part of nature, not only have the right to a healthy environment, but also to a connection with nature and to the gifts of nature for their physical and psychological health and ability to learn and create …”
A few words of caution. Without an even stronger worldwide movement, concern could fade. More and even better research — causal, not only correlative — is needed. So are new, creative ways to connect children to the natural world through nature education, but also through direct, unorganised experience.
As Carol Birrell’s story suggests, you can lead young people to water, but without a deeper understanding of the wonder of nature, without the joy of it, you cannot make them see.
Sign up to host an event for Nature Play Week and start building the new nature movement!