author Radu Simion
The loss of connection with nature is a subject that faces, especially nowadays, an increasing attention. With this phenomenon, it is talking about human alienation, anger, the sense of losing something fundamental, separation, “the extinction of experience” in Pyle Robert’s words, and the “nature-deficit disorder”, a term used by Richard Louv in his book, “Last Child in the Woods”, to describe this state of facts. In nature, the man finds his identity, history, his self, he develops emotionally, physically and cognitive, getting a broader perspective upon the world he’s living in. Richard Louv addresses the subject of returning to nature as a way of self-discovering and, more than that, as a socio-pedagogical model of moral education for sustainability, care and ecological conservation. How does he do this? Simply by following the path of splitting from the natural world and trying, using intelligent and approachable solution, to bring back the joy, the involvement, the experience and curiosity into the body of love for nature.
First, Louv thinks that there is a lack of day-to-day contact with the natural elements, because of the lack in playgrounds, places where the children can experience the feeling of being in touch with something pure, fully alive and totally new. The playgrounds have become places that “screams human presence”, domesticated, flat, dull, concrete-built, too organized, artificial-like and, last but not least, few and full of restrictions like “do not touch”, “no ball playing”, “do not step on the grass”, “do not put your hamrocks here”. The children need to wonder, to enjoy the freedom of exploring without unnecessary restrictions, to feel confortable in a space that allows them to develop skills and to “feed” their trust. Nature is for admiring, but also for touching with care and responsibility.
The children (but also the adults) miss the interactive experience with the environment, being used to the organized play, in which each element has to bring the security and predictability of the game. But an environment that is totally predictable does not have the power to challenge the child for discovering the world in a realistic way, and to develop abilities that are necessary for the adaptation in a fluid, dynamic reality. By outdoor play, in nature, individuals develop the so-called “risk-thermostat”, a term used by John Adams to describe an adaptation phenomenon to the conditions a child faces.
Having the direct experience with the environment, the child becomes awake, more alert and observant, being fully present and identifying the variables in the environment, gradually learning what is safe and what is dangerous , beginning to understand the surroundings and to guide himself according to the experience. Thus, the child learns about his own fears and limits, trying to overcome them and starting to take risks they can control on. The natural world, in opposition with video games, does not come with an instruction manual, but is a dynamic and continuously changing environment. Playing in nature helps the individual to align himself to the rhythms of life, to cycles, to different contexts, facilitating the development of a fully opened personality, with a high level of resilience and self-trust.
As Fiona Danks and Jo Schofield, the authors of “Nature’s Playground” said, “life is full of risk, so the best way to prepare children for life is to ensure they know how to judge risk for themselves.” Having the experience of direct contact with animals, plants, herbs, trees, bugs, touching the muddy ground, they learn about the conections between the elements, discovering that nature is a space of fascination, joy and relaxation, of refuge, solitude and emotional growth. Less time spent in the outdoors means a lack in being prepared to take risks, and thei freedom and independence will begin to restrain, little by little. This fact is having a strong impact on their creativity, on their physical health and on their states of mind. A study from 2003, published in the Psychiatric Services Journal showed that the percentage in which the US preschool children are prescribed antidepressants doubled in the last five years, to a 66 % percentage. The problems that are linked with a sedentary life-style and the impact of technology in everyday life of the kids are obvious. Another example comes from the Regional Medical Center in Seattle, in a study whose results showed that every hour a pre-school chld spends in front of the TV screen increases, up to 10 % the risk od developing attention problems and another symptoms related to ADD and ADHD. A green enevironment and play can restore the emotional, social and psychological life of our children.
Activities like gardening, farming, feeding the animals, producing one own’s food represent important facts which can ensure a proper development of the senses, with a feeling of dipping in the dynamics of the world. This way, the inner life of a child unifies with the outer life, creating a fine balance. The parents should try to give up their unjustified fears that inhibit the children to venture with curiosity into nature. Over-protectivity, characterized by the tendency to oversee every child’s move, banning games and preventing them for discovering the world by their own will, is a cause for the increasing time of children’s play in in the indoors. This way, their attention is directed to well-definded tasks. Too much directed attention leads to directed attention fatigue, linked to impulsivity, restleness, psychical stress, irritation and the incapacity to focus. Te nature offers the so-called “soft fascinations”, a term used by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan to describe nature’s simple wonders, like the slowly movement of the clouds, the bee’s “dance” around a flower, the sound of the wind through branches, falling raindrops or the amazing and wonderful colors of a sunset. All these elements inspire awe, fascination, leading to effortless attention.
In that state of mind, the kids relax themselves; for us, as adults, is necessary to not disturb or interrupt these solitary and aesthetic experiences in nature but rather, to encourage them to see the beauty of these phenomenas, to not keep the distance between the “soft fascinations” and their inner beings. The miracle of experiencing with no specific reason, with a full openness and the joy of seeing and feeling things cannot be replaced or explained using a concept or some high-tech experience. The beauty of playing and noticing different hues of tree’s leaves, smells, bird song sand their movement oin the sky, the beauty of exposing to something bigger than just human being and the anthropic society- these are necessary aspects of a growing child’ life. Building tree houses, planting flowers, fishing, building a shelter in the woods or a fortress with mud, collecting herbs, listening to the birds, creating environmental art, climbing trees, looking for animal evidences, making a campfire, establishing a “green hour” each day for walking outdoors, reading outdoors and encouraging children to do so, we can keep alive the interest for us and for the biosphere, with it’s flora and fauna. These are some ways through which the experiential-environmental-based education is able to built healthy personalities, honest and optimistic individuals, full of compassion, capable of strong friendships.
The Earth has to be a playground, the classroom isn’t necessary an indoor room but, rather a place of free knowledge and joy, a space without restrictions and reprovals, tiring limitations or too much outer control. In a place like this, the kids and parents can live “momente ecstatice de incantare” (ecstatic moment of delight), a metaphor used by Edith Cobb, the author of “The Ecology of The Imagination” to describe the experience of wondering, inventiveness, imagination and contemplation in the outdoors. So let the Nature be your guide! Be Green!
*for more informations, studies and facts related to “nature-deficit disorder”, please check Richard Louv’s book “Last Child In the Woods”.
In a world where playing outdoors is being replaced more and more by indoor or technology assisted activities, what is there to lose for the children?
Firstly, is the time kids spent outside really decreasing?
Research shows that as early as the `99s, 40% of Japanese children from metropolitan and rural areas preferred playing indoors rather than outdoors, and 70% said that what they do most with their free time is watching TV1. A study from 2004 shows that only around a third of the children in US play outside daily. These kids spend 29% less time than their guardians when they were little, playing chasing and fleeing games. Moreover, only a bit over a half of them are playing make-believe games regularly2.
Considering that these data are pretty old, we might be thinking that things got better in the last years. Well, guess again. A British survey shows in 2016 that almost three quarters of the UK children spend less time outdoor than prison inmates3.
Is this really something we should worry about?
Playing outside helps children learn necessary and useful skills for their adult life, including social competence, problem solving, creative thinking and safety skills4,5,6. The decrease in children engaged in imaginative play is also of concern because made-up games influence how kids understand society, their inventiveness, language development, the use of symbols, their ability to understand the world and it gives opportunities for the young ones to imitate and interpret adult behaviour7,8,9,10.
While getting muddy and discovering nature your children also grow emotionally and academically by developing an appreciation for the environment, engaging in imaginative play, developing initiative and understanding basic academic concepts such as objects’ proprieties or using simple tools to get a task done7,8,11.
Between the ages of 3 and 12, a child’s body is getting through its greatest physical growth that comes with a urge to run, climb and jump12,13,14. By providing your children a proper environment for doing this freely you do not only help them grow strong, but also support the healthy development of their heart, lungs and other vital organs. Take the digestive system as an example, active play stimulates it and helps improve appetite, ensuring continued strength and bodily growth15,16.
What can we do about it?
Fortunately, putting together some outdoor activities to enjoy with your children is not complicated nor is it expensive. Actually, it is way cheaper than most toys or electronic games. All you need is a bit of time and imagination. Here are some suggestions of seasonal activities recommended in Jennifer Ward’s book17 to boost your kid’s creativity, curiosity, observation skills, imagination, physical condition, ability to relax, knowledge of objects proprieties, basic knowledge about natural phenomena, sense of adventure, awareness and appreciation of animal and plant life and much more.
These are only some of the things you can do with your kids to show them the wonders of outside playing. You can always take a break from your busy life and spend some quality time bonding with them.
Have the advantage of enjoying the fresh air while helping your children to learn new things.
1. Benesse Corporation (1999) Kodomo tachi no asobi monogurafu shogakusei nau [Children’s play in elementary grade schools], vol. 19(1). Tokyo: Benesse Educational Research Center.
2. Clements, R. (2004). An investigation of the status of outdoor play. Contemporary issues in early childhood, 5(1), 68-80.
3. Survey commissioned by the laundry detergent brand Persil as a part of its "Dirt is Good" campaign supported by previous work, including government reports
4. Miller, K. (1989) The Outside Play and Learning Book: activities for young children. Beltsville: Gryphon House.
5. Moore, R.C. & Wong, H.H. (1997) Natural Learning: the life history of an environmental schoolyard. Berkeley: MIG.
6. Rivkin, M.S. (1995) The Great Outdoors: restoring children’s right to play outside. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
7. Guddemi, M. & Eriksen, A. (1992) Designing Outdoor Learning Environments for and with Children, Dimensions of Early Childhood, 20(4), pp. 15-24.
8. Singer, D. & Singer, J. (2000) Make-believe: games and activities for imaginative play. Washington, DC: Magination Press.
9. Bergen, D. (2002) The Role of Pretend Play in Children’s Cognitive Development, Early Childhood Research and Practice, 4(1). Available at: www. ecrp.uiuc.edu/v4n1/ bergen.html
10. Perry, J.P. (2003) Making Sense of Outdoor Pretend Play, Young Children, 58(3), pp. 26-30.
11. Kosanke, N. & Warner, N. (1990) Creative Play Areas. Nashville: School-Age Notes.
12. Noland, M., Danner, F., Dewalt, K., McFadden, M. & -Kotchen, J.M. (1990) The Measurement of Physical Activity in Young Children, Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 61, pp. 146-153.
13. Kalish, S. (1995) Your Child’s Fitness: practical advice for parents. Champaign: Human Kinetics.
14. Cooper, K.H., Schwarzenegger, A. & Proctor, W. (1999) Fit Kids! The Complete Shape-up Program from Birth Through High School. Nashville: Broadman & Holman.
15. Clements, R. (1998) Wanted: strong children with healthy imaginations, Playground Post (Long Island: Playground Environments)
16. Pica, R. (2003) Your Active Child: how to boost physical, emotional, and cognitive development through age-appropriate activity. Chicago: Contemporary Books.
17. Ward, J. (2008). I love dirt!: 52 activities to help you and your kids discover the wonders of nature. Shambhala Publications.