Talking recently to her junior primary school class, my friend, Rosemary Clarke, used the word, “picnic”. “What’s a picnic?”, the children asked. Unlike the happy toddler and her baby sister in this photo, these children from a Sydney suburb had never eaten a meal under a tree in a park or on the bank of a river or even on one of Sydney many beaches.
The photo, it should be said, was taken over 25 years ago when the world of childhood was different but beginning to change. In the past two decades, children’s recreational contact with the natural world has declined dramatically as indoor activities have substantially replaced outdoor play. In 1981, according to surveys conducted by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, children ages 6 to 17 spent an average of 100 minutes outdoors in unstructured play each week. By 2002, that time was halved to a mere 50 minutes.
In one generation, the proportion of children regularly playing in wild places in the UK has fallen from more than half to fewer than one in 10. In the US, in just six years (1997-2003) children with particular outdoor hobbies fell by half. Eleven- to 15-year-olds in Britain now spend, on average, half their waking day in front of a screen.
The story in Australia is much the same. For example, a recent Western Australian study found that over 70% of primary children reported participating in more than the recommended maximum of two hours electronic media activity on all of the seven days prior to the survey. Similar proportions of children exceeding guidelines have been revealed in other Australian and international research.
Does it matter that indoor activities are displacing outdoor play? Will children’s development, health, happiness and well-being suffer as a consequence?
Yes, is the answer commonly given by professionals involved with children and their welfare. Richard Louv, for example, claims that impoverished contact with the natural world places children at risk of what he calls nature-deficit disorder. This is not a medical diagnosis but a label for the costs to children of being disconnected from nature. The costs Louv describes include inadequate and inappropriate sensory stimulation, attention difficulties and higher rates of physical and emotional illness.
Louv’s concern is shared by many othersand is based largely on observations of the benefits children obtain from living, learning or playing in natural environments. These benefits include
- improved physical fitness and co-ordination,
- lower likelihood of obesity,
- less risk of short-sightedness (myopia),
- less stress,
- increased self-esteem,
- strengthened self-control,
- enhanced academic motivation and performance and
- relief from some of the symptoms of Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder.
What being nature-deprived means for children’s long-term development and functioning as adults has still to be discovered. But there are immediate consequences we already know about, for example:
- they have less exposure to the sky-blue light that, in children especially, has a potent influence on human sleep patterns, hormonal and chemical rhythms, mood and alertness;
- they have less of the colour, depth and motion stimulation needed for the development of full visual powers;
- their awareness and understanding of the natural world is impaired. The decline in children’s basic knowledge of nature is now being documented. A United Kingdom survey commissioned by the Airbus Corporation found, for example, that 37 per cent of children aged between 5 and 10 did not know what a bee looked like and a third could not recognise a mouse;
- they are at risk of becoming fearful of nature and even contemptuous of whatever is not “man-made, managed or air-conditioned”.
In having much less free play in natural settings, the children of today are missing out on what I call an authentic childhood.
I’ll have more to say about this in posts to come.