Kids In Nature
In a world where so many fascinating things live within a screen, often, eyes are drawn inward, and no longer outward. Historically humans have had little choice but to connect with nature: for food, for tools, for resources and for entertainment. Our evolution has altered these customary rhythms of daily life. The sophistication of the internet allows adults to bypass the mundanity of errands in the outside world. Children less so, but increasingly so as the modern world envelops us. This is part of our changing phenomenon. While many of us pass things by as we go about our daily activities, a few among us observe this change more closely.
“If you look at the streets, they are empty of children. You don’t see them playing in the streets. I cycle a lot in Melbourne and I don’t see the children playing in the streets,” notices Dr. Cecile van der Burgh.
Van der Burgh grew up in North West Europe. She spent her time playing, getting to know her natural surrounds.
“I walked to school when I was younger, I took a bicycle when I was older, that was in the Netherlands. It makes such a big difference because you have time to connect with your school mates and time to chat and time to explore your world. There appears no time or space for children to do that right now.”
Van der Burgh is reminded of an article in the Daily Mail published in 2007, that reported on the shrinking roaming range of eight year old’s within a single UK family over four generations. Great grandfather George, brought up in the 1920s, had almost unlimited freedom as an eight-year-old, regularly walking six miles to go fishing on his own. But 80 years later, his great-grandson Edward enjoyed none of this freedom: he was taken to and from school by car, and was only allowed to roam within a radius of 300 yards from his home.
“Roaming in the neighbourhood is not really a part of child’s play anymore.”
“There definitely is some stranger danger but I think it is also urban planning, we are mostly a car-based society, we have filled in our space with roads and car-based ways of getting to places. The Heart Foundation states that Australian children are some of the most chauffeured children in the world. [2,3]
“They don’t have time to stop and smell some flowers or look at the trees or wonder what something is or have a play, there’s no time for that.”
Dr. Van der Burgh is a human geographer and has spent over two decades exploring the human relationship with the world and how we exist in it. Her childhood has profoundly shaped her future, as most childhoods do. In the budding stage of growth, children are acutely observant, they must be to be able to do and move and run. Their inclination to enjoy the outdoors and expand their skills with the space to do so is natural.
“Those experiences, those connections, we are not just by ourselves in an empty space, we are connecting to the world around us, the places where we are, the people around us. That makes life special. It provides you with a home and your bearings and a sense of where you belong and an idea of where you want to be in this world. Children need these experiences to be able to then navigate their lives,” said Van der Burgh.
Van der Burgh is a co-founder of the Kids in Nature Network based in Melbourne.
“I had an opportunity to be involved in the Centre for Sustainability Leadership Fellowship and there I met a wonderful doctor and a community development worker. We got together and we explored why sustainability is such a huge issue and it all came back to this disconnect with nature. At first, we wanted to take decision makers into nature, to offer them these profound immersive experiences. But we soon realised that our world view and relationship with the world around us develops much earlier than that. We asked the question: when did it happen for us? And it was when we were really small people. We decided to focus on young children. We felt that those were the most important times in our lives.”
They forged a team to try and build a better future where children do not miss out on experiencing nature for themselves.
“I think it is an essential right for children to have the space and the time to explore their world and they don’t have that time and space anymore. And there are fewer and fewer natural places to explore. That is one of the reasons why we don’t understand our interdependence with our world as much as we used to, potentially.”
Without regular immersion in the surrounding environment, our understanding of nature’s subtleties can be overlooked. We can now gather information online, we can watch the weather radar and determine what may occur in the coming days. We can predict with astonishing accuracy. But this cannot replace the foundational learning of touch, texture, sight, sound and flavour. These sensory elements are important for young children who are beginning to gain an understanding of the world around them. Peter Wohllenben, in his book The Weather Detective, Rediscovering Nature’s Secret Signs, explores the power of observing the world around us.
“When we use all our senses at full capacity, we access the wealth or thrilling and calming experiences waiting for us just outside our back doors, in nature and in our gardens. The world seems to expand when we’re able to appreciate it in all its diversity.”
There is something profound about our existence on earth. We rely on the environment for Vitamin D, nutrients and oxygen. Nature feeds us, and it keeps us hydrated. To remove that link is not without consequence. Jamie Oliver was baffled when a group of school children could not name fruits and vegetables in his program Food Revolution. They could not name a tomato. They did not know that tomatoes made their tomato sauce. That was in 2011. There was a clear disconnect about where and how the food came to be.
“People think we are okay if we are disconnected from nature and it does not matter where our food comes from because it comes from a shop, but I think it all adds to the problems that we see around us as well, in terms of sustainability, the loss of local nature and climate change,” said Van der Burgh.
Part of that is because children are not in gardens, especially in cities. As house prices soar, many families are forced into, or chose to, live in smaller apartments, often devoid of outdoor space.
May Morshedy and her husband currently live in a one-bedroom apartment in Melbourne, sharing their bedroom with their 2-year-old daughter Tamara. This type of living is not uncommon in Australia. It is mind-blowingly ubiquitous in Japan and China, as their cities swell. It is increasingly common in major cities throughout the world, and Australia is not immune. Despite the space Australia has, jobs and financial opportunity bring people into the metropolitan area.
As this is the case, it is not surprising that children are having less contact with nature. They are not knowing it as they are not part of it.
“It can be difficult, especially in winter,” said Morshedy.
“If you are working, you arrive home and it is dark, and you cannot go outside. In summer it is easier because we can go to a public park.”
Her daughter is only young but Morshedy is already noticing how attached she is becoming to technology.
“The other day was so shocking. I was going to cry. I said, ‘Let’s go to the park’ and she said ‘No, I want videos’. It was like a nightmare, I could not believe it was happening. That makes me sound like a terrible Mum but to be honest, I do not know a single mum who does not let their child watch videos. We do it in varying degrees, but we do it. It is so hard to not expose them to phones and technology. They see it once, YouTube on a phone, and they are hooked.”
Morshedy is determined to take Tamara outdoors at every opportunity she gets.
“I try to coax her out as much as I can, whenever I can. What works with Tamara is when we go walking in nature we talk about it, we name the colours of flowers, sometimes we take photos and at home we start a conversation about it. We talk about the birds we saw, or the ducks and then she gets excited about when we can next go for a walk and she gets to show off her knowledge of colours and numbers. She tells me the numbers on the houses we pass. She loves it.”
“That time together walking and talking is precious,” said Morshedy.
When they go on these walks, Morshedy notices how engaged and expressive Tamara is.
“When Tamara is on the phone and we talk to her she doesn’t respond, and she gets angry more easily. If a child does not like talking, this increases their withdrawal. When outside Tamara is very present, very responsive and she wants to have a conversation about what she sees. It is all about these little conversations. It connects us. We go through an experience and go on an adventure together.”
For adults too, it is the lack of contact with each other and the outside world that has an impact on our sense of well-being. Morshedy relishes her morning walks to work. She said that the 25-minute walk helps her clear her mind and it is physically good for her too.
Through her studies, Van der Burgh is in constant observation of human interaction with the outside world. She notes that things are happening, things that leave most people unaware.
“Currently, we are losing large areas of our local forests here in Victoria without knowing that it is happening because we don’t go there, we don’t see it. And even in neighbourhoods, aerial photographs over time show that there used to be a lot of bushland where children could play. A lot of that has been lost to urban development. New neighbourhoods are designed by developers which are not necessarily taking nature into account as one of the essential things that we all need around us.”
Large parts of our population are city dwellers. Kids in Nature Network receives calls from curious parents, asking for advice about how to lead their child in nature play.
“Some parents now have not had those experiences to pass on to their kids. They are the first generation of parents who have not had these outdoor experiences. They are looking for assurances that playing in the local park in the rain or swimming in the local river on holidays can be done safely,” said Van der Burgh.
Kids in Nature Network advocate for intergenerational equity: for all kids to have every opportunity to explore and love nature. To be offered with the same opportunities and experiences that we had as kids, so that children can learn and pass onto their children and so forth. “It is unfair to take these rights away.”
Van der Burgh reaches in her bag and pulls out a book, Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. Louv coined the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” and for adults, as well as children, a lack of time in nature has become a hot talking point.
Doctors now prescribe a walk in the park to patients who are feeling a bit wobbly, a bit unlike themselves. It has been reported that Doctors in Shetland Islands are prescribing outdoor time to patients. There is a direct link between movement and our mental health and physical health. Our bodies were not designed to stay sedentary for long periods of time.
Kids in Nature Network has mapped the work organisations in Victoria do to reconnect kids and nature and the barriers they are facing. People do question the hard evidence behind the benefits of nature play, often is it not taken as seriously at literacy or mathematics. But locally and internationally, the research is well and truly in. [7, 8 9] . “It is now a matter of sharing this knowledge more widely and shouting it out from the rooftops.” Van der Burgh is quick to say that Richard Louv’s book is very valuable at this current time: “‘Nature Deficient Disorder’ is not a medical term but it captures the range of symptoms observed in people who don’t get to connect with nature. And children are the most vulnerable to that.”
As part of Kids in Nature Network, Van der Burgh and her team interviewed community leaders in Victoria over one and a half years, about their work to see what is happening, figuring out what they were doing, where they needed help, what they could do to help build a movement.
“Our vision was for every child to have that opportunity to connect with nature on an everyday basis.”
“When we interviewed all of those inspiring people, we found that everyone was doing amazing work in their networks or local communities but there was nothing connecting us at a different scale and across sectors. So we invited these leaders to four planning meetings and established a network together. We then co-developed different initiatives to help others to do this sort of inter-sectoral work, to be inspired and connect with people that were doing it and building a movement that would give all kids that opportunity.”
They started out organising network forums. They connected with the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria and they became partners.
“Their Education Coordinator was Christine Joy at the time, who had been developing wonderful nature play programs for many years, and who was one of the key drivers behind the famous Ian Potter Foundation Children’s Garden. Obviously The Gardens are interested in connecting people with nature and plants…. and so we developed a strong partnership.”
“There were four of us then. For several years we ran network seminars with local and international speakers. Some people in the State Government saw what we were doing. They attended events and provided financial support for the initiative. Over the years our reach and impact has grown. We had a conference with Richard Louv, founding father of the Children and Nature Network in the USA in 2014, together with the Australian Conservation Foundation. That was a whole day in the Fitzroy town hall. We had Jackie French, Aunty Joy Murphy, Alison Lester, Graeme Base and Dr Mardie Townsend launching our Nature Play Week. There are lots of brilliant people that we have connected with over time. It has been absolutely wonderful.”
For the last five years Kids in Nature Network have been running Nature Play Week. The week presents over 150 events staged by more than 80 organisations. They have done a lot with little means. This year, the week will run from 17-28 April 2019 .
“One of the things we really want to be is a catalyst. We want to get people see examples and think: ‘we can do this ourselves in our community’. And we want to celebrate and put a spotlight on the myriad of initiatives out there, so people can connect with their local organisations,” said Van der Burgh.
The connection between one another and having shared experiences in the world is vital.
“The face to face thing is so important,” said Van der Burgh.
“There is no judgement when it comes to technology,” she says with sincerity.
“It is just becoming such a big part of us that we sometimes struggle to relax in the real world without devises. If we spend time sitting, watching the ocean or a tree on a weekday, we can feel almost uncomfortable… an exception because nobody else is doing it. Everyone is running around being busy. But we actually need this quiet outdoor time sometimes. It is really nice to watch the clouds and sunsets. I love doing that myself, but I know a lot of people, let alone kids, who do not have the patience to do this.”
“I think, and this might be controversial, that in future we will see similar rules that we see with smoking with technology because it is so addictive and especially for young people, if you do not have the strategies to deal with that, it is really hard.”
It is the art of balance that will challenge us all in future years, as technology seeps into our lives with automisation and further into our ways and means, by which we function with practicality and efficiency.
“I think it is always good to remember that technology is developed by people, so the technology is only as good as the idea behind it and the solutions that we are trying to find,” said Van der Burgh.
“Technology can’t fix everything, it can’t fix the loss of certain places that we love. If you lose a place you lose it, you can’t rebuild it as it was and this is the thing I try and say about nature, it takes such a long time for nature to create a forest that is 2,000 years old or hundreds of years old. To think that if you take that away you can rebuild it as human beings with technology, I think that is a misconception. However, technology can solve huge problems. We have spoken about climate change, taking co2 out of the atmosphere, for example. In future I am hoping that there might be solar powered machines that will do that. But do we want to build a world that looks the same wherever we go? Where we have McDonalds on every corner and the same sort of shops and the same sort of roads with machines that take co2 out of the atmosphere? That’s not a world that inspires me.”
Van der Burgh finds great meaning and purpose in the cycles of the seasons, and of the changing flora and fauna that surrounds us.
“I think nature created all of this diversity of places and of spaces and then we have this incredible diversity of people and cultures and I think that kind of diversity is the exciting thing about living in this world and appreciating that and knowing why your local area is different from a different local area; knowing your local creatures, your animals and plants.”
Van der Burgh and many like her see no other way forward, but to reinspire engagement with living forms of nature.
“Children now know more brand names of technology, like Apple, and shoes and clothes than they know names of their local wildlife and plants. That in itself shows how we have shifted away from our local areas. That local connection, both with people and with nature, and building a local, thriving community and being able to sustain that, playgroups are a really vital aspect of that and that’s exciting. You can do so many things! Even in this area where I live, there’s this incredibly interesting history of the Elwood canal that use to be a creek surrounded swamplands. Now it is a suburb of Melbourne, but there are still international birds travelling here, especially for their wintertime. There is a local citizen scientist here who is only 22 years old and he has counted more species in this area than the whole entire Melbourne zoo because he knows where to look. He spends a lot of his time outside and he builds nest boxes with local children and it’s incredible, they do that through the Eco Centre in St Kilda. I love that. You need people like that in every area to bring people along and to show them where these things are.”
The more time children are given, to gather an appreciation for nature, to enjoy it, the more they will care for it and find new ways to nurture the planet as we know it.
“Nature is not just in a forest somewhere over the mountains, it is all around us. We are part of it and that is the beautiful thing: when you start to see those details around you, the wonder of life is infinite. For little children, it can be as exciting as lifting a stone in your street and seeing what’s underneath it. I remember when I was a child I loved the birds around the house and I had names for them. I used to sit and watch them build their nests for hours, days. Just watching them build their home and then the tiny eggs hatching and the parents feeding their young - I loved that. It was relaxing and energising. I still know how I felt when I was doing that! Having that ‘alone time’ or sharing a special experience like that with a friend, or a sibling, your dad or your dog…, having an adventure that you had as a little kid, those adventures we are now losing out on.”
Article by Sinead Halliday
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