Tuesday, 1 April 2014

An environment in which to contemplate infinity and eternity - a look at 'nature deficit disorder' and the extinction of experience ...

The following is another excerpt/literature review from a paper I am currently writing "Into the Wild - the Fierce Urgency for Natural Play", looking into the causes of our disconnection from nature and exploring the consequences of a lack of natural playtime.

Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder
Richard Louv (2005)

Building on the ideas of naturalists such as John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Henry David Thoreau, and supported by more recent researchers and writers, ‘Last Child in the Woods’ is Richard Louv’s contribution to a body of work exploring our disconnection from nature and the worrying consequences of this.

Louv argues that children’s disconnection from nature is evident in the rise of childhood obesity, attention deficit disorder, and depression. These issues are also explored by Sue Palmer’s research in ‘Toxic Childhood’ who suggests that 'every year children become more distractable, impulsive and self-obsessed - less able to learn, to enjoy life, to thrive socially’ (Palmer, 2007).

Perhaps one of the most worrying statistics of recent years is the claim that our children may be the first generation at risk of having a shorter lifespan than their parents (Ludwig, 2007). In 2012, the ‘Designed to move: A Physical Activity Action Agenda’ report was released at the 8th Annual Clinton Global Initiative meeting. The report found that in just two generations, the rate of active play, physical education and overall physical activity has dropped by 20% in the U.K., 32% in the U.S. and 45% in China. It states that ‘today's 10 year olds are the first generation expected to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents’. The agenda puts the importance of play in plain terms, with two “asks”: to create early positive experiences for children, and to integrate physical activity into everyday life (Designed to Move, 2012).

Today’s children are encountering numerous health problems due to a sedentary lifestyle and physical inactivity – chronic conditions such as childhood obesity, asthma, and attention-deficit disorder have all increased over the past few decades (Perrin, 2007). These chronic conditions can then lead to pulmonary, cardiovascular, and mental health problems in adulthood. A report by the National Environmental Education Foundation (2010) states that outdoor activity in the natural environment has taken a back seat to television, video games, the computer, and a demanding schoolwork and extracurricular schedule. As a result, today’s children and young people are far more sedentary and losing contact time with the natural environment that can be so beneficial for their health and well-being. Time in nature should not just be viewed as leisure time but as an essential investment in our children’s health (Louv, 2005).

In a study investigating the links between the natural environment, biodiversity and mental health, Bird (2007) states that children increase their physical activity levels when outdoors and that they are instinctively attracted to nature. He also suggests that children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) may benefit from more time in contact with nature. Louv presents interviews with parents of children with ADHD whose symptoms were calmed by natural settings, alongside a wealth of international research on the benefits of nature for those with ADHD (Louv, 2005, p.107-108). He argues that more time in nature, combined with less television and more stimulating play and educational settings, will go a long way towards reducing attention deficits in children. The benefits of natural play, alongside increased physical activity levels, can be seen in the development of a positive self-image, confidence in one’s abilities and experience of dealing with uncertainty - transferable skills that can be important in helping young people face the wider world and develop enhanced social skills (Ward Thompson et al, 2006).

So what happens when we deprive our children of these powerful learning opportunities and experiences? Louv is perhaps best known for coining the term ‘Nature-Deficit Disorder’- the intention behind this phrase being not to present a medical diagnosis but to find a shorthand description of the varying cost of humans’ disconnection from nature.

This term has recently seen a resurgence in the UK with the creation and release of ‘Project Wild Thing’ a 2013 film by David Bond. In it Bond explores the idea of a nature-child reunion. He laments his children’s waking hours being ‘dominated by a cacophony of marketing, and a screen dependence threatening to turn them into glassy-eyed zombies’ (Bond, 2013). His concerns are similar to that of Louv, who expresses distress at the idea of children today being more likely to prefer playing indoors than outside and who would find it easier to name cartoon characters than native species.

‘Last child in the Woods’ also complements the work of contemporary nature writers, such as Robert Michael Pyle, David Orr and Gary Paul Nabhan, who have written about the extinction of children’s experiences in nature. Orr suggests that children’s view of nature is increasingly distant, abstract and utilitarian and that ‘however affluent, their lives are impoverished by diminishing contact with nature’. He believes that when children’s imaginations are stimulated by screens, they are worse off ecologically, socially and spiritually (Orr, 2002). Pyle (1993) argues that one of the greatest causes of the ecological crisis is society’s ‘alienation’ from nature and that the extinction of experience can cause a cycle of disaffection that has disastrous consequences. Although we don’t yet have concrete evidence of the long-term effects of excessive materialism, Orr suggests that its hallmarks are ‘shallowness and the loss of deeper feelings having to do with a secure and stable identity rooted in the self, relationships and place’ (Orr, 2002).

Direct learning experiences in the outdoors can help develop our sense of place – which in turn can increase our concern for sustainability. Lugg (2007) highlights the importance of experiential learning in promoting education for sustainability. She argues that direct contact with the landscape is essential for people to reconnect with the natural world. This is supported by research carried out by Farnum, Hall and Kruger (2005), who discovered that ‘most place attachment studies assessing environmental concern or stewardship show that people who are more place attached to areas also exhibit greater concern about the ecological well-being of the area’.

In order to make the right choices for the future of the environment, we have to understand how nature supports our day to day lives and we also need to have a goal for what we want to achieve (Natural England, 2009) – ultimately, a greater concern for sustainability supported by a deeper sense of place, achieved through connecting with and learning from nature.

Perhaps where Louv stumbles in this work, while presenting his case passionately, is that he almost condemns the nature deprived to a life of impairment, both physical and cognitive. It could be argued that such condemnation of those that do not have access to a rich experience of the natural world is both demoralising and patronizing, and it lacks any form of recognition for other ways for us to improve our health and well-being. Schalit (2009) suggests that many ‘exquisitely sensitive and creative people who grew up enduring the sensory assaults of our cities’ asphalt canyons’ exist and that those individuals sought solace in places such as museums and libraries. Perhaps the reserve of the middle and upper classes, I would go further and say that solace has also been sought in urban wildernesses, creativity has blossomed, identities have been formed by children who have found wilderness in the concrete jungles they found themselves in.

While experiencing nature and deepening our relationship with it can hugely benefit our physical and psychological well-being, it is fair to suggest that it is not the only way to develop a stable identity and sense of place. I would argue however, that deepening our relationship with nature offers one of the most holistic ways to live –not only improving our health and well-being, developing our identity and giving us a sense of place, but also giving us a heart for future generations and the sustainability of our planet.

What Louv does successfully is leaving the reader with an optimistic view of the opportunities for change. ‘We must hold the conviction that the direction of this trend can be changed’ (Louv, 2005, p.309). Highlighting the success of recycling and anti-smoking campaigns in the last generation, he argues that a movement towards a child-nature reunion is starting to take root and will rise from the determination and awareness of individuals as well as organisations and national networks.

Within the UK, we can see the awareness and recognition of the importance of this issue in reports such as the Government’s ‘Every Child Matters’ agenda (DfE, 2003) and ‘The Natural Choice: securing the value of nature’ paper (DEFRA, 2011) which proposes “action to get more children learning outdoors, removing barriers and increasing schools’ abilities to teach outdoors”. These, along with the RSPB’s (2010) ‘Every Child Outdoors’ report and The National Trust's ‘Natural Childhood’ report by Stephen Moss (2012) bring together evidence of the benefits to children of having contact with nature. They support Louv’s hope and vision for individuals, organisations and governments to start recognising the fierce urgency for natural play.

We all have a role to play in reversing the trend towards the extinction of experience amongst children if we are to begin to see a reversal in these worrying consequences (Moss, 2012). And we should remain motivated to do so, because nature presents the young with something so much greater; it offers an environment where they can easily contemplate infinity and eternity (Louv, 2005)...

Copyright © Menna Pritchard 2014

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