Conkers came from the oak (or was it beech or maybe fir?), cows hibernate in winter, grey squirrels are native to this country, and of course, there’s no such thing as a leaf that can soothe nettle stings. At least that’s what between a quarter and a half of all British children believe according to researchers.
It’s hardly surprising though considering 64% of children nowadays play outside less than once a week, 28% haven’t been out on a country walk in the past year, 21% have never been to a farm, and 20% have never – not even once- climbed a tree. So, it’s hardly surprising they don’t know about nature.
But perhaps it’s not so much about what children ‘know’ about nature that’s important, maybe it’s the actual being in nature that matters.
In this age of Sky TV, ipods and ipads, social media, ‘constructive’ after school activities, ‘stranger danger’, and parents not wanting their children to get dirty, it’s no wonder children don’t get the chance to play independently outdoors anymore.
The majority of my most treasured memories of childhood are of being outdoors. Aged 12 I would often pack myself some sandwiches and wander off into the hills for the day with my dog. It seems so sad that nowadays just 21% of children play outside compared with 71% of their parents in their day.
It’s interesting that research has shown people with less access to nature show relatively poor attention or cognitive function, poor management of life issues, and poor impulse controls. And that humans living in landscapes that lack trees or other natural features undergo patterns of social, psychological and physical problems. Violence and aggression are highest in urban settings devoid of trees or grass.
This reminded me of animals in a zoo. When animals are deprived of their natural habitat there is increased aggression and disrupted parenting patterns.
Being outdoors is good for children. On the website childrenandnature.org there is a lengthening list of studies showing that time spent in free play in the natural world has a high impact on health. Obesity is one of the obvious ones, but numerous studies show how regular time outdoors produces significant improvement in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning ability, creativity, and mental, psychological and emotional wellbeing.
A study at the University of Essex showed that just five minutes of ‘green exercise’ can produce rapid improvements in wellbeing and self-esteem, with the greatest benefits experienced by the young.
A lack of a natural environment promotes unnatural behaviour, such as self-mutilation, stress, obesity. And that’s the zoo animals. But they are behaviours that have seen an alarming increase in occurrence in children too in recent years. Is it a coincidence that our children are showing the same symptoms as caged zoo animals? After all, humans are animals too, and if our children’s environment is not the natural one is should be, should we be surprised?
I’m not suggesting we should let our children live like wild animals, but maybe be free range and given as least some freedom and access to wild places.