“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.” – John Muir
‘He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul” Psalm 23
As part of our nighttime rituals I have a ‘chat’ with my 4 year old on any subject he chooses. I set the timer on my i-phone for about 10 minutes and usually he’s asleep before it bleeps. Frequently the request is to hear stories about my childhood living on a farm in rural Suffolk.
This has meant the need for me to recall the most vivid experiences from those dim and distant days and nearly all of those memories involve doing stuff outdoors. I can easily recall: climbing trees, sliding down steep banks, fishing for stickleback, harvesting nuts and sloes, making dens in a neighbours woods, discovering birds nests (I can still recall at least 20 different nests discovered and the exact locations). With 5 of us children and 2 busy parents we had immense freedom to play, explore, create and imagine amidst the infinite possibilities that nature affords.
Now that I’m a parent myself I can’t help feel a deep sadness when I compare my own childhood with what I see all around me now. The statistics speak for themselves:
- 11 to 15 year olds in the UK spend on average half their waking day in front of a screen
- On average, Britain’s children watch more than 17 hours of television a week: that’s almost two-and-a-half hours per day, every single day of the year.
- British children are also spending more than 20 hours a week online, mostly on social networking sites.
- Fewer than one in ten children regularly play in wild places; compared to almost a half a generation ago.
Here are a few of the issues associated with NDD as well as some of the benefits of exposure to the natural world. (Most of this is fully referenced in the Natural Childhood report):
- Physical health problems. Obesity resulting from a more sedentary lifestyle would be obvious but studies have also shown that there are other potential physical problems; asthma, vitamin D deficiency, short-sightedness, cardio-respiratory issues and general low levels of physical strength.
- Emotional and behavioural issues. Studies show various behavioural and emotional issues linked to NDD: attention deficit disorder, higher levels of stress and aggression, self-harming and depression. There is also a strong link between levels of overall happiness and the amount of time spent outside.
- Attitudes to risk. Maybe a less obvious result of NDD is the inability to assess risk and the decline in emotional resilience. “The less children play outdoors, the less they learn to cope with the risks and challenges they will go on to face as adults… Nothing can replace what children gain from the freedom and independence of thought they have when trying new things out in the open.” Prof Tanya Byron.
- Biophilia. This is the notion, popularised by biologist Edward O Wilson, that connection with nature is an innate need of human beings. ‘Just as children need good nutrition and adequate sleep, they may very well need contact with nature…’ Richard Louv
- Educational benefits. There is widespread evidence that children’s learning, both formal and informal, improves with increased contact with nature. ‘…children who learn outdoors know more, understand more, feel better, behave better, work more cooperatively and are physically healthier.’ Simon Moss in Natural Childhood.
- Environmental concern. As David Attenborough puts it; ‘No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced’. And according to Dr William Bird of the RSPB the critical age of influence would appear to be before the age of 12.
- Spiritual benefits. Maybe Anne Frank expresses something about the spiritual impact of nature that you won’t find in more secular studies: ‘The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature.’
- Creativity and genius. In her essay ‘The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood”, Edith Cobb proposed that contact with nature stimulates creativity. Reviewing the biographies of 300 “geniuses”, she exposed a common theme: intense experiences of the natural world in the middle age of childhood (between 5 and 12).
Just to conclude this blog with a personal reflection. Since starting a family nearly 5 years ago I’ve often struggled with sleeplessness. The intensity of family life with small children, the disturbed sleep and the lack of space for reflection have all seemed to contribute. I have often resorted to prescription sleeping pills but sometimes even those don’t work. However, I’ve realised recently that the best prescription is time alone surrounded by nature. If I don’t get this for a few days then I can easily slip back into tossing and turning for much of the night.
As John Burroughes puts it:’ I go to Nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put together’. When outside in green spaces, I can feel the tension lift and I sense a quickening of all my faculties; mind, body and spirit.
The Psalmist was spot on: when I’m outside ‘in green pastures… he restores my soul’.
In my next blog I will look at some practical ideas for maximizing time outside.