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Nature Deficit Disorder

I first became interested in the subject after reading Richard Louv's book ’Last child in the woods’. The California-based author Richard Louv coined the phrase that has come to define the problem we are now trying to solve; ‘nature deficit disorder’. He talks about how children today can tell you about the Amazon rain forest, but not the last time they explored their local woods. He talks about the need for the next generation to love nature as they are more likely to protect it when they are adults. He also talks about the issues that are stopping children from playing outside such as signs like ‘no ball games’, ‘no climbing trees’, ‘don’t pick the flowers’,  and children not being able to play out on the street due to traffic  Howvere, one local authority has allowed parents to apply to closed their street for a couple of hours, each day after school.

Many of our children’s lives are well organised by well intentioned parents going from one adult led activity to the next e.g. school to football to drama class to ballet where they often don’t need to do much creative thinking for themselves. They live an over-scheduled, over –organised childhood. These adult organised outdoor sport activities are not the same as children being able to have unstructured play outdoors where they can socialize and be creative with their play, and having to thinking what to do for themselves. As parents we want our children to watch less TV and use the computer less but are not comfortable with the alternative unless it is adult led.

Richard Louv talks about how the indoors is a more risky place for our children; the indoor air pollution being far worse than outdoor air; online chat rooms being more risky than stranger dangers; sitting on the couch in front of the TV for hours being more dangerous to their health than climbing trees.The report states that there are more accidents from falling out of or off the bed these days than falling out of trees.

There have been many reports into the health benefits of being in nature; reducing stress; promoting friendships; developing self-confidence; improving behaviour; educational benefits such as increasing creativity, improving concentration, observation and listening skills. Reports are saying that if children become nature smart, i.e. refining their listening and observation skills they are probably more likely to become street smart.

Richard Louv talks about contact with nature being as important to children as good nutrition and adequate sleep. He states ‘To take nature and natural play away from children may be tantamount to withholding oxygen ‘.

The National Trust has recently commissioned Stephen Moss to write a report on this issue called ‘Natural Childhood’.He reports about the physical health problems including obesity, mental health problems, vitamin D deficiency, short-sightedness, asthma, and children’s growing inability to assess risks to themselves and others and how an obsession with trying to achieve a ‘zero-risk’ world is severely limiting children’s freedom.

Stephen talks about how these risks are a fundamental part of childhood, by gradually learning what is safe and what is dangerous, especially with regard to their own actions and behaviours; children develop their own ‘risk thermostat. But if children are shielded from any possibility of being in a risky situation, how will they ever know what their safe limits are?’

Moss' report talks about nature having more competition for the attention of today’s children as they have a largely screen-based lifestyle but there is evidence that children would really like to spend more time outdoors. The report also states that benefits of regular outdoor play continue into later life; that a child’s attitude towards exercise lays the foundation for their habits as an adult.

Others have claimed that children who learn outdoors know more, understand more, feel better, behave better, work more cooperatively and are physically healthier.

The National Trust 2012 has launched a consultation on tackling ‘nature deficit disorder and there is currently a government White Paper, The Natural Choice, where one of the headings is ‘Connecting people and nature for better quality of life’.

The White Paper recommends that ‘more children experiencing nature by learning outdoors, through practical support to schools and reducing red-tape for outdoor learning’.

‘Sowing the seed’, a report by Tim Gill commissioned by the London Sustainable Development Commission talks about regular contact with nature being part of a ‘balanced diet’ of childhood experiences that promotes children’s health development, well-being and positive environmental attitudes and values. The report make several recommendations, two of which are below

Recommendation 11 – Forest school and similar approaches to learning in the outdoors should be promoted and supported...education and childcare sectors. All London children are offered forest school or similar sessions during their early years

Recommendation 12 – Schools and early years settings should give greater emphasis to offering children engaging everyday nature experiences within their grounds, where possible allowing access by wider community

Children’s engagement with nature matters: what could the Early Years Sector do to help?

I believe that the Early Year sector can help. If we support parents to understand the benefits of the outdoor space, especially the woods, by taking their children and the parents regularly to local green space then the parents are probably more likely to use the space at weekends and during the school holidays. As their children grow up they may have more confidence to allow their children to roam free in their local community. We also can direct parents to other resources and support.

There is now a book to help parents to know what to do in nature with children, teaching them the skills such as making and flying a kite, damming a steam, making a whistle from elder, making a rod and tackle, and tracking animals. The book is called ‘Skimming Stones and Other Ways of Being in the Wild’ by Rob Cowen and Leo Critchley. In addition, the National Trust has put together a wonderful list for children, of 50 things to do before they are 11 and three quarters.

We can all sign up to support the campaigns  ‘Love Outdoor Play’ and ‘One million children outdoors’

Maybe you have a Forest school or you already take your children to green space regularly. If so, did you come across any issues and how did you overcome them?  Were parents receptive to your ideas? I would love to know your comments, thoughts and what you are already doing. Do join in the with the forum discussion here.

Bibliography

Gill, T. No fear: Growing up in a risk averse society

Knight, S. Risk and Adventure in Early Years Outdoor Play

Lindon, J. Too Safe for their Own God? Helping Children Learn about Risk and Life Skills

Louv, R. Last Child in the Woods

Tovey, H. Playing Outsdie: Spaces and Places, Risks and Challenges

Below are some you-tube clips of other Early Years setting connecting children to nature. Enjoy.

http://www.foresteducation.org/woodland_learning/forest_schools/

http://www.forestry.gov.uk/fr/INFD-5Z3JVZ

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-17495032

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-16963807

http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9709000/9709957.stm


Helen Irving
Helen is an Early Years Adviser supporting 52 settings in the South East. Over the last 30 years she has worked in pre-schools, day nurseries, private schools, state schools, and in reception and nursery classes. She has also helped to set up a Children's Centre. Helen is currently undertaking an MA at Roehampton University.
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