Posts Tagged ‘Children and nature’

This weekend, in cities around the world, people are marching in support of science and evidence-based policy making. As I write this, thousands of Australians have already taken part in the global March for Science. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are expected to demonstrate in the same way, largely in response to President Trump’s proposed budget cuts to science and his scepticism about the causes and consequences of climate change.

The well-being of Australians is being jeopardised by much the same governmental devaluing of science and climate change “denialism”. Emperor Economics and his sidekicks, Prince Political Power Protection and Duke Dogmatic Ideology, are reigning supreme.

Protests against these threats to informed rationality are to be welcomed but it is staggering to think that such activity is necessary after 250 years of the so-called Age of Enlightenment.

How are Trump and countless others of influence and power able to get away with making policies and decisions based on assumptions, opinions, gut-feelings and ideological prejudices rather than scientific (or factual) evidence?

Is it because too few of their constituents have the scientific literacy to question and challenge them? If the growing concern about school students’ declining performance and participation in science is anything to go by, this could be the case.

But let’s be realistic in our expectations. The formal study of science, especially at more advanced levels, is not for everyone. Nor is such study necessary in order to be scientifically literate in a very useful and powerful way. We can all “do” science.

This little girl (Zoe) is “doing” science.

She is seeking to understand her world by investigating, observing and testing it against what she already “knows” or believes. This is exactly what genuine science is about.





If she continues to do this through the formative years of childhood and adolescence, she will assemble the basic components of scientific literacy, namely:

  • a keen desire to investigate and learn about the physical and social world she occupies
  • an authentic but growing and malleable picture of that world
  • an understanding and appreciation of the kind of evidence (anchored to observation and objectively tested) that is needed to build that picture

Of these components, the last is the most important for navigating the sea of fake news, propaganda, dogma, spin, half-truths and lies that washes our way daily. I believe that a universal commitment to the principle of living under the guidance of sound evidence would make the world a much better place. And fostering that commitment in our children has to be a priority in their upbringing.

How far little ones like Zoe will travel on the road to scientific literacy depends on many factors, how they are nurtured in science at school being a key one. But parents (and grandparents) can also contribute significantly by –

  • sharing, supporting and encouraging their children’s “science” play
  • encouraging such play by locating their children in stimulating settings especially in the natural world
  • talking to their children about what they are seeing doing and discovering
  • encouraging observation, discussion and reflection when things of interest are encountered in daily life.
  • using questions to bring out the scientist in their children, such as

What is it doing? How does it feel? How are they alike? How are they different? What if…? How could we…? Why do you think…? Can you explain that?

It is worth noting that research from the USA suggests that most children form an opinion about science by the time they are seven years old. This is surely reason enough to expose children from a very early age to the scientific playgrounds to be found everywhere in the out-of-doors.










Read Full Post »

Among the presents Zoe (my great granddaughter) received for her second birthday was a photobook about her recent trip to Sydney. The book was enclosed in 20 X 15 cm red vinyl covers, the front one containing a window showing the title of the book.

But when Zoe removed the wrapping from her present, the first thing she saw was the unmarked back cover. Her immediate response was one of delight. “Ipad”, she announced.

She was obviously disappointed when she realised that the “ipad” was in fact a book (although some pleasure was restored when she saw that the book was all about her).

Barely two years of age, Zoe made clear that she is already an enthusiastic member of the electronic age.

This was the second of two incidents that “inspired” this post. The first was my viewing of a short film that Josh Gosh (author of The jaguar and its allies blog) brought to my attention. Please take a moment to view  this heart-warming, informative and provocative film before reading further.

The two incidents came together in my mind as I reflected on the reality that, for children in our society, the electronic media are an inescapable and, increasingly, indispensable component of their lives. An associated reality is that the virtual and cyber worlds accessed by electronic media are luring children away from the outdoor play and nature experiences that are essential for the healthy development of their bodies and minds. Both realities, the second one especially, give reasons for concern – a particularly grave one being that our children are at risk of developing videophilia (a love of virtual reality) at the expense of biophilia (the love of natural reality).

With awareness of this risk surfacing (yet again) in my mind, I recalled the film and found myself pondering the thought that perhaps videophilia could be made an ally of biophilia – at least to some degree. It is now established scientifically that the human brain responds to pictorial and electronic images of nature much as it does to real-life nature experiences. So, why not use computers, ipads, smart phones and the like to bring nature to the minds of children in a way that nurtures biophilia?

With Zoe on hand, I decided to put this idea to a test of sorts. I sat her in front of my computer and played the film.  img_1521

She watched all six minutes of it intently, keeping her eyes on the screen even when her grandmother was commenting on some of the content.

“Did you enjoy the film?” I asked, to which she replied with her version of “Yes”.

But the real indication of the impact of the film on her came some minutes later.

Her aunty Bek arrived for a visit and immediately Zoe insisted she come to the computer and watch the film with her. This time, Zoe was the commentator, smiling and gesturing to convey her pleasure.img_1539

I am sufficiently encouraged by Zoe’s response to begin exploring the Internet for other nature material for her to watch – to supplement, I stress, not replace real nature activities.

I know that this is not an original thing to be doing. And in a later post, I will write about a father who has managed to confine most of his children’s on-line viewing to You Tube compilations he has made of videos and films about animals and nature generally.


Read Full Post »

In 1960, an American psychiatrist, Herbert Hendin, was looking through statistics showing the rates of suicide in various countries. He was surprised to find enormous differences across the three Scandinavian countries, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Of all the countries Hendin surveyed, Denmark had the highest rate (along with Japan) whereas Norway had the lowest. Sweden was also well up the list, much closer to Denmark than to Norway.

Hendin was so intrigued by the contrasting rates that he travelled to Scandinavia to investigate the likelihood that cultural differences lay behind the differences. He spent four years there, learning Swedish and Norwegian in order to undertake his research. Although many factors influence the incidence of suicide, Hendin was able to conclude that differences in childrearing values and practices across the three countries were part of the explanation.

Norwegian child at playIn simple terms, Norwegian children played more freely, enjoyed more independence, had more opportunities to investigate the natural environment and spent more time learning by doing rather than being instructed. In contrast, childhood in Denmark and Sweden was more subject to adult control and expectations concerning education, careers and life goals generally. Under these conditions, Hendrin believed, Danish and Swedish children were more likely to experience failure, to have feelings of inadequacy and diminished self-worth and to develop anxiety and depression as a consequence. Norwegian children, on the other hand, encountered much less external pressure and, through their greater participation in free play, were more likely to develop self-confidence and resilience rather than self-doubt and vulnerability.

These different worlds of childhood reflected the contrasting economic and social environments thatNorway a existed in Scandinavia at the time. The rugged terrain of Norway had fostered small-scale, family-owned farming and fishing activity that kept many Norwegians in close touch with the natural world. For the children this meant that playing in this world was an integral part of life – indeed it was their life to a very large extent. Just as their parents had to exercise independence, self-reliance and resourcefulness, so too did the children. It is no surprise that their fairy-tale folk hero, Ash-lad, was a reflective, nature-savvy and highly enterprising individualist who found all sorts of unconventional ways of coming out on top.

The Ash-lad studying the embers

The Ash-lad studying the embers

Independence and individuality were much less valued elsewhere in Scandinavia. The flatter landscapes of Sweden and Denmark were much more conducive to large-scale and technological farming and to the centralisation of ownership. This gave rise to much less economic and social autonomy at the personal level and the strengthened perception that it was necessary to compete through personal achievement in order to get ahead.

Unlike its neighbours, Norway resisted Germany in World War 11. This strengthened the Ash-lad ideology. Then, the post-war economic boom spurred the rebuilding and development of Norway’s fisheries, farming and industry, a process that was greatly accelerated by a work-force steeped in the Ash-lad ethos. But this transformation ultimately brought Norway into the world of corporate capitalism and international economic competition, to the detriment of small-scale farming and fishing. In this new world, the influence of the Ash-lad is weakening even though his example of learning through, from and in nature continues to shape Norwegian educational values and practice. Norwegian children are now behaving and striving much more like their counterparts in other Western countries. Free play in natural surroundings is much less the norm.

And what of the Norwegian suicide rate at the end of this era of change? It is one of the highest in the world!

Now, the Norwegian story does not conclusively show that a link exists between:

(a) a pressured childhood in which there are fewer opportunities for free play and contact with nature and

(b) heightened anxiety, depression and suicide risk in later life.

But we have to consider the possibility of such a link. There is mounting evidence that outdoor play has long-term benefits for physical, social, emotional and cognitive development. Among other things, it fosters a sense of identity, feelings of autonomy and psychological resilience – all important contributors to a healthy sense of self-worth and a decreased risk of anxiety and depression.    


I found much of the material for this post in Sigmund Kvalϕy-Sӕtereng’s chapter in Nature First: Outdoor Life the Friluftsliv Way.

Read Full Post »

LyrebirdIn reporting on a recent bushwalk she and her husband had done, my daughter Wendy mentioned with some excitement that they had seen a Lyrebird. She added, almost as an aside, “and a snake”. (Experiences with snakes in Nepal as well as Australia have helped her to be reasonably matter-of-fact about the creatures)

Australia is home to almost all of the 10 most venomous species of snakes in the world. But Australian snakes do not pose a serious threat as they are shy creatures that avoid contact. Nevertheless, we are alert for snakes, especially during the warmer months, like now. Unfortunately a fear of snakes discourages some Australians, especially newcomers, from venturing into our beautiful bushland.

I talk about the fear of snakes later in this post but first I provide a context, which inappropriate as it may first appear, has to do with our love of living things.

I was greatly entertained this week by a video of Wendy’s granddaughter, Zoe, having “quality time” withWith Peter Rabbit January 2016 b her new pet rabbit, Peter. She squatted beside Peter (much as she is doing in the photo), gently patted him and then attempted a “cuddle” and a kiss.

Zoe has grown up with dogs in her life and loves animals.

This is not at all surprising or unusual because, like all of us, she was born with a brain that has a positive bias towards living things.

From as early as four months of age, infants pay more attention to animals than to toys including furry toy animals. And they are equally attentive to snakes – with no sign of fear.


Another snake charmer

Why then do human (and other primate) adults usually have a fear of snakes that is stronger than the fear of almost anything else? It may appear to be a rational or intellect-driven fear because snakes are known to be capable of harming or killing humans. But so too are guns and knives. What’s more, the fear of snakes resides in many people who have little or no contact with them. So what’s going on?

An answer that is gaining increasing scientific support is contained in the “snake detection theory” which is based on the idea that evolution has given us brains that are “prepared” to learn very quickly to fear snakes.

Researchers at the University of Virginia, Vanessa LoBue and Judy DeLoache, have pioneered the study of the origins of the fear of snakes in children. They report that children are very good “snake detectors”. Shown a set of eight photos – seven depicting caterpillars and one showing a snake – three-year-olds were quick to find the snake photo. By contrast, they took longer to find the caterpillar in a group of snake photos. The same thing happens when the children were asked to distinguish snakes and frogs. Picking out snakes seems to be easier, especially so, according to another of LoBue and DeLoache’s studies, if the snake is moving in its characteristic writhing motion.

The posture of the snake may also affect the speed of detection. Using a task that required people to pick out a snake image from an array of flower images, Nobuo Masataka and his colleagues found that both children (aged 3-4 years) and adults were faster identifying snakes if the snakes were shown in an attack position. According to their parents, the young children in this study had never been exposed to snakes before. Not only had they never seen a real snake, they’d never seen any images of snakes, or toy snakes.

These findings point to the likelihood that humans are hard-wired to be quick at detecting snakes and possibly other potential predators such as crocodiles. Snake detection theory goes a step further, however. It proposes that snakes have played a major role in the evolution of our brains, specifically our incredibly complex and accurate visual systems. Both snakes and primates, including our species, evolved in tropical regions and had plenty of opportunities to interact. Snakes are hard to spot, so if their threat was strong enough, natural selection might have favoured primates with keen eyesight and quick reaction times.

The neurological evidence supporting this theory is starting to be uncovered. At the base of the brain, there is a very busy visual relay centre called the pulvinar region. Compared to that in other mammals, this region is disproportionately large in humans and primates. It is thought that the pulvinar is particularly important in picking out important visual information in cluttered environments.

To test this idea, researchers inserted probes into the brains of captive-bred Japanese macaques who had never encountered snakes. Activity in the pulvinar region was monitored as the macaques were shown various images – monkeys’ faces, monkeys’ hands, simple geometric shapes, and snakes – under carefully controlled conditions. The pulvinar region was found to be especially attentive to images of snakes. It didn’t matter whether the snakes were coiled up or stretched out; the macaques’ neurons responded similarly to snakes in each position. Since these monkeys had never seen a snake before, the neural responses appear to be hard-wired rather than a result of experience.

Another response that appears to be hard-wired into the human brain completes the biological foundation of our fear of snakes. LoBue and DeLoache demonstrated the link in infants in the first year of life. In a landmark study, they presented infants with videos of moving snakes paired with videos of other animals – giraffe, rhinoceros, polar bear, hippopotamus, elephant, and large bird – moving at the same speed. The videos were played under two different conditions – accompanied by either an audio track of an adult sounding fearful or one in which the adult sounded happy.

When the happy voice was playing, the infants paid no more attention to the snake than to the other animals, but with the fearful voice, their attention was directed much more on the snake.

What LoBue and DeLoache appear to have shown us is that the human brain has evolved to learn more quickly about certain kinds of animals – those that have posed the greatest threats to our ancestors. Maybe it takes very little to trigger fear (and other negative feelings) where snakes (and possibly other threatening creatures) are concerned. We see friends or family acting fearfully and we are persuaded very quickly to adopt the same behaviour. As Martin Seligman proposed over 40 years ago, animals, including us, are “prepared” to learn some lessons very fast.

Our fear of snakes is just one small aspect of the amazingly complex way in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviour are influenced by nature. Reflecting on this, the architect of the biophilia concept, E.O. Wilson says,

We’re coming to realize that there’s something a lot more complicated and deep and wondrous in the development of the human mind, than what we had imagined.

Ours are minds, Wilson adds, that have “a strong residue of the environments in which we evolved”. And those are natural environments.

Somewhat like the tracks on a CD that are moulded by an environment of sound, our brains have been richly and subtly attuned to natural environments. And just as a CD requires the right kind of player to perform, the human brain responds optimally to the stimulation of nature.

That is why our brains have the strong positive bias towards nature we see in infants like Zoe. The image of Zoe reaching towards Peter captures something of that bias and is a symbol of what our brains would have all of us do – embrace nature and be showered with benefits for doing so.



Read Full Post »

The annual report from WordPress (my blog’s webhost) has just turned up in my email. The report tells me how many views my posts attracted during 2015, how many visitors dropped by, the countries they were from, the most viewed posts and so on. The report points out that many of the posts are still being viewed, prompting the suggestion that the topics of these posts might be worth revisiting. Always open to wise suggestions, I have decided to do just that in this post – but with a twist.

The most viewed post by a country mile was one I published in 2014, soon after the birth of my great granddaughter, Zoe Margaret. In that post, The World I Would Like for Zoe, I reflect on the world that I hope will be hers – not so much the world in general but more the part nature might play in her life and, indeed, in the lives of everyone. The post was written very much in the “I have a dream” vein, the dream being for a world where Zoe can forge a deep and mutually nurturing friendship with the natural world. I want this for her because, as a human being, this is a relationship she is meant to have and also needs. It is her birthright no less.

Needless to say, observing Zoe’s delight in discovering the natural world is a great joy. Recently she Gang Gang bfound Gang Gang Cockatoos and other native birds very much to her liking. She rapidly learnt to recognize the sound, “gang gang”, and to look for the birds where they usually sit.

Zoe is able to discover nature because her family constantly provides her with opportunities to do so, and she is growing up near abundant natural bushland and urban greenery.

On both counts she is a very fortunate little girl. The natural world is becoming a resource for her mental, emotional, social and spiritual life.

The understanding that nature is an essential resource for human all-round wellbeing is accepted by many but not by all. Indeed there are vested interests, ideologies and mind-sets that find such an idea threatening – even contemptuous.

I was reminded of this by an email I received just a day or two ago. The email was from Michael Keats, one of three bushwalkers who have dedicated themselves to raising awareness of as well as protecting beautiful landscapes and ecosystems close to Sydney. A visit to their website is highly recommended – even to my overseas readers because the site contains many stunning photographs. These photos (from their website) of the Gardens of Stone provide a glimpse of the beauty that Michael and co want to share and preserve for posterity.

Pagodas explorers

Garden of Stone pagoda














A great concern is that many of these unique formations are being threatened by mining operations that can undermine the structures causing them to collapse.Gardens of stone threat

This is an excerpt from Michaels’s message:

I have authored over a dozen books on bushwalking and made a number of appearances before PAC [Planning Assessment Commission] enquiries to try and prevent the destruction of bushland for Coal Mines. In my submissions and personal appearance I have emphasised the spiritual value of the bush to restore and replenish the human spirit and suggested that resources should be committed to opening up areas such as the Newnes Plateau to bushwalking and discovery rather than mining. Whilst I have not been laughed out of court, sniggers from coal miners and pro coal advocates are common. I walk twice a week and go camping whenever I can. The stimulation to my life from close contact with nature is amazing.

IMG_0338 fixedWhile some of the magnificent areas that Michael refers to are in wilderness areas, others are readily accessible. I have been visiting these areas for over 40 years and share Michael’s passion for them. My life would have been the poorer without the Newnes Plateau and the Gardens of Stone.

My fervent hope is that Zoe will get to visit such life-enriching places as often as I have.

That is why I am immensely grateful for what Michael and his associates are doing. They are true “biophilic crusaders” – people who are fostering both a love of nature (biophilia) and a commitment to the preservation of natural environments.

I am writing this on January 1, 2016 – as good a day as any for New Year resolutions. With biophilic crusaders in mind, I resolve to make 2016 a year when I do more to support conservation organisations and “naturalising” projects (projects aimed at transforming urban spaces into pockets of grassland and trees).

If this resolution resonates with you, why not join me?

Happy New Year, Bonne Année, Manigong Bagong Taon, Heri ya mwaka mpya, Buon anno, あけましておめでとう, Frohes Neues Jahr.

Read Full Post »

Harry ButlerHarry Butler CBE OA, a former Australian of the Year, and one the country’s foremost naturalists and conservationists, died earlier this week. If you do not have memories of him, you might care to look at this YouTube video clip from In the Wild, his enormously popular TV series from the 1970s.

Although very short, the clip displays much of the essence of the man, especially his love of and respect for nature, the extraordinary depth of his knowledge about the natural world and his great effectiveness as a communicator.

Behind his bushman’s earthiness, there was a very sharp scientific mind and an ability to engage with all sorts of people including politicians, media personalities and captains of industry. Disrupted formal schooling did not stop him becoming a renowned teacher of natural science in colleges and universities.


Although passionate about the wellbeing of the natural world, he regarded himself as a builder of bridges between conservation and development. One of his proudest achievements was ensuring the protection of Barrow Island, a nature reserve that is home to hundreds of rare plant and animal species, during its development as an oil field. He quarantined the island against introduced plants and animals, banned guns and introduced other measures to protect wildlife and preserve habitat. The practice he developed of using cleared vegetation as both a cover for oil pipelines and a restored habitat for animals is now used around the world.Barrow Island c

His insistence that, under most circumstances, conservation and development could proceed together was not welcomed in some quarters. Some conservationists said that Harry had sold out on his values. But the “either-or, but not both” way of thinking about conservation and development ignores the reality that humanity’s successful and sustainable co-existence with nature has to balance our pro-nature sentiments, actions and values – love, attraction, intellectual understanding, religious celebration and symbolic expression – with the need to exploit nature to some degree and exert some power over it.

Harry achieved that balance in his own life and modelled it for others. I am sure his TV series helped many discover, re-kindle or deepen their connection with nature. As Australia’s home-grown David Attenborough, he truly brought nature into our lounge rooms, attracting regularly a 20% share of the TV viewing audience.

We need many more in the mould of Harry Butler and David Attenborough – people, who through books, film and electronic images, can infect others with their enthusiasm for nature.

The power of media to connect our hearts and minds with the natural world should not be underestimated. Countless studies have shown that representations of nature in photos and paintings and on film and videos can elicit affection, attraction, interest and indeed all of our biophilic responses. Environmental biologist, Orion McCarthy, whose blog, Conserve, I heartily commend, traces his emotional and intellectual passion for nature not from his direct experience of it as a child but from

…the nature documentaries, the trips to the zoo, and the amazing pictures in National Geographic that taught me the importance of nature, the challenges facing the natural world, and why so many species deserve saving.

 With buying Christmas gifts currently on the agenda for many of us, why not consider nature books and thewaterholeDVDs? They could just turn out to be gifts that truly “give on giving”. For suggestions, just Google “Nature DVDs”, “Nature DVDs for toddlers”, “Nature Picture Books”.

Have a happy Christmas.


Australian christmas

Read Full Post »

A recent newspaper article attacked “baby boomer” empty nesters for staying in their detached houses after their families had left home instead of downsizing and making their houses available to younger people with families. As detached houses are in very short supply, so the argument goes, older singles and couples should release their free standing houses to the market. This would enable a greater number of families to enjoy the benefits of more indoor and outdoor living space.

Sounds reasonable?

Well, maybe – if it is indeed the case that younger people want bigger houses with front- and backyards.

Of course they do, you might think. Who wouldn’t want a big house with a spacious kitchen and living area and separate bedrooms for each of the kids, not to mention a garage for each of the family cars?

And as for front- and backyards, aren’t they part of the ideal modern family home? Well, they might be for some, but compare these photos of a new development on the left and an older suburb.

Loss of backyard

Loss of backyard b

Compared with the older suburb, the newer development has a much larger dwelling footprint and fewer trees. Instead of presenting as a patchwork of roofs and greenery, it is mainly roofs.

What the photos illustrate is a trend that has been going on since the early 1990s according to Griffith University’s Tony Hill. Since then, freestanding houses with big backyards have ceased to be built. Instead, the clear preference has been to build almost to the boundaries of the available land – and then enclose the site with high, opaque wooden or metal fences that provide privacy at the expense of outlook.

Freestanding houses and backyards are fast becoming a threatened species.

Even where the sizes of building blocks have remained much as they always have been (the “quarter acre” – actually eighth of an acre – block ), the same trend is occurring. People are choosing to build big and exclude green space. Here is an example from my own street.

IMG_2163The front yard will become a drive and the backyard a swimming pool surrounded by concrete or paving.

The finished house will certainly look very different from the original houses in the streetIMG_2165 like this one.

Practical or economic necessity is not all that is at work here. We are also seeing evidence of a general shift in the psyche of urban dwellers. We are succumbing to the belief that our “natural habitat” is the human-designed, developed environment. This allows us to tolerate the growing reality that the modern city is dominated by profit-driven development, marked by environmental degradation and disconnection from nature.

But as biophilic design guru, Stephen Kellert, reminds us,

This contemporary reality does not diminish people’s inherent need to affiliate with nature as a necessary basis for health, productivity, and well-being.

It does make it harder, however, to get home the message that by adopting a pro-nature approach to design and development, it is possible to restore an environment – even in our urban areas – where nature is still on hand to nurture and enrich the human body, mind and spirit.

And rescuing the suburban backyard from the threat of extinction has to be part of that process.

Many of my previous posts have directly and indirectly explored the place of the backyard in maintaining a connection with nature. A backyard is obviously critically important for building nature and outdoor activities into the lives of children – a theme of posts such as An authentic childhood, Nature play, An alarming message, and The campfire connection (with nature). For adults, having a backyard that contains a garden, even a small one, is hardly less important. The well-documented physical, psychological and social benefits of gardens and gardening are mentioned in such posts as Nature and wellness, The dream that can be a reality, and Urban density – the caution light is flashing.

Additionally, the backyard garden has a function and importance that goes beyond the interests of individuals and households. The presence of private gardens in aggregate brings significant advantages to the community, including:

  • contributing to clearing the air of pollutants such as ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and small particulates.
  • absorbing and sequestering atmospheric carbon.
  • increasing biodiversity – domestic gardens can exhibit a degree of planting density and variety that is not found elsewhere in urban areas, including playing fields and nature strips.
  • improving natural drainage and reducing the risk of excessive stormwater run-off.
  • combatting summer heat by lowering surface temperatures – by as much 5 degrees Celsius according to one Australian study.

Saving the backyard garden is not beyond the realms of possibility but it will involve a rethink of urban and household design by everyone, especially politicians, planners and developers. Far from being a radical move, it would be a return to traditional Australian values and the reversal of a trend that is, after all, only comparatively recent. And as Tony Hill rightly observes, It would also call upon people to relax and start enjoying life again, hardly a negative or puritanical goal.




Read Full Post »

Older Posts »