We seem to be inundated with so many fears for our children’s wellbeing that it can all get a bit tiresome and overwhelming. But perhaps the most durable and widespread source of anxiety over the past decade is how many children have lost meaningful contact with nature, and the well-documented negative consequences that result. A leading advocate for addressing this disconnection – or ''nature deficit disorder'' as he coined the term - is Richard Louv, the American author of the award-winning book Last Child in the Woods.
Louv's book has compiled research from around the world, arguing forcefully for children to be reintroduced to the wilderness. It suggests social and developmental benefits from exposure to nature and highlights research claiming that a range of psychological symptoms could be reduced, at least partially, by spending more time in the great outdoors.
Australian research concurs with a 2007 state government investigation into playground spaces in Victoria finding that young children ''need exposure'' to natural environments to appreciate the ''complex variations of texture, sound, light, smell, colour and temperature''. The subsequent government report - The Good Play Space Guide - highlighted the creative impulses that can be fostered by play with the ''loose parts'' of nature - the leaves, twigs and gumnuts.
But how realistic is it to expect today’s kids to get out in the bush? Perhaps the most pragmatic response in Australia is to critically examine our urban and suburban environments where the vast majority of Australian children are still raised. We know this is an especially relevant issue now as our fast growing population pressures look almost certain to reduce available green space in our denser urban environments. From Brisbane to Perth, apartment buildings are springing up in central cities, planned on the increasingly flawed assumption that residents will be a mixture of DINKS (dual income no kids) and empty nesters and that high rise living is automatically assumed to be bad for children.
But not only do children increasingly live in these new inner-city apartments, they appear to be bucking the stereotype. The project, "Vertical Living Kids", a study of 40 children aged eight to 12 living in buildings of four storeys or more in central Melbourne, found that these children had more freedom to roam public spaces – streets, parks, public transport – by themselves than most suburban children.
Other Australian studies focusing on the middle and outer suburbs have shown how many different factors compromise children’s ability to connect with nature. Some of these are more obvious concerns such as child and parental fears of traffic safety, stranger danger, bullying, increasing car ownership and reduced public transport services, and the poor quality of many outdoor play environments. Then there are the more “big picture” challenges including greater complexity in lifestyles, information technology driven passivity and the growing tendency to heavily schedule middle class children’s lives, often called “turbo-childhood”.
Whatever the contributing reasons, the pressure to find an effective response is intense. It’s no big secret that obesity is a growing problem with one-quarter of all Australian children in 2007–08 overweight or obese (up from 21 per cent in 1995), statistics due in part to the lack of time kids spend playing outdoors.
Longitudinal studies here and elsewhere clearly show that children directly benefit by learning through outdoor play, with increased competency levels, mental/physical well-being and approach to life. A second set of benefits accrue to society by improving social or community cohesion, deterring anti-social behaviour and empowering both carers and children. This makes play valuable to both the individual and the community.
A school pal who spent a good part of his childhood climbing trees is now one of Brisbane’s better known urban landscape artists but I wonder how possible it might be for an equivalent kid today to have the same influential experiences?
If re-connecting with outdoors can improve our kids communication with others in the playground, allows them to show greater responsibility for others, become more curious in living things and enhance their story-telling creativity, then as it might be said by kids today, “what’s the problem?”
The famous naturalist E. O. Wilson said that biophilia – love of nature – is natural. But if today’s children grow up without nature experiences, they risk never being bonded to nature and may well care less about the environmental challenges of tomorrow. Let’s hope we have not heard the danger signs too late to replenish this critical bond and consign nature-deficit-disorder to the historical archives.
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