New British Study about Nature Disconnect

A new study from Great Britain bodes poorly for children and their outdoor lives. According to researchers at Hertfordshire University, while most children are open to outdoor play, their parents are not, and a lack of confidence is often the reason.

Parents are overly fearful, the survey said. They fear cars, injury, abduction, ending up on private property, children running away, and .. dirt. From the study:

There seems to be an obsession about cleanliness. Perhaps because children are in expensive clothes, mud seems to be abhorrent.

What happened to play clothes? Are children showpieces? It makes sense to use inexpensive or used clothing precisely for play, to be dirtied and stained. Play is the job of children! Dress them appropriately and let them explore.

Another issue? Lack of map-reading skills. Said senior lecturer Debbie Pearlman Hogue:

None of the mothers I spoke to could read a map.

This is downright pitiful. As a result of skewed priorities and an extreme lack of skills, a whole generation is being deprived of outdoor play and experiences which, in turn, is going to render each successive generation increasingly bereft of experiences and abilities until we all just stay huddled inside our homes.

Poul Christensen, chairman of Natural England, says:

Children are being denied the fundamental sense of independence and freedom in nature that their parents enjoyed.

Children now want more opportunities to play outdoors. Whether through pond dipping or tree climbing, nature-based activities can play an important role in the educational and social development of children.

England’s Royal Society for the Arts points to a “risk averse” culture in which “youngsters were being deprived of the freedom to develop, to manage and take risks – and, ultimately, to grow up.” Of course, this phenomenon is not unique to England – It’s prevalent in the U.S. and in much of the industrialized world.

How can we reverse this unhealthy trend? A few ideas:

Make outdoor play a public priority by designing parks and safe, green play spaces.

Make outdoor play a personal priority by getting outdoors as a family or joining a nature club.

Educate parents about legitimate and unfounded fears.

Learn to enjoy wild spaces and trails as much as mediated, organized playgrounds and parks.

Dress kids appropriately for play and weather.

Walk instead of driving when possible.

Make friends with your neighbors.

Learn to read a map and kindle a sense of adventure about going somewhere new.

This site explains map reading and also offers some exercises and games for beginning map readers.

As an aside, I’ve always loved maps and atlases. I appreciate knowing the “lay of the land”, getting the big picture. For that reason, I don’t rely on GPS devices in cars. They remind me of driving through a tunnel, being told only what I need to know. I’d rather be armed with information and perspective. I fear that devices like GPS, while helpful, also tend to do the work for you, and that their prominence will only render people less capable of navigating their own, not to mention other, neighborhoods.

If kids and adults merely go out their doors and explore, and engage in simple map use and games, like treasure hunts, they’ll find themselves empowered to use maps and they’ll have a lot of fun. Look for treasure hunt tips in a future post.

Kings Norton Park in Birmingham, England: benkid77, Map of Twickenham, England: Creative Commons

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5 responses to “New British Study about Nature Disconnect

  1. Fantastic post, Suz! Couldn’t agree more that parents are obsessed with overscheduling their kids’ time in organized activities. I only have a handful of friends who “let” their kids get dirty and explore the natural world. Also key in all of this is allowing kids the freedom to go at their own pace and discover the world as they see it, not as we parents might.

  2. This couldn’t be more timely! I was just messaging another mom about how to become less anxious about outdoor time – specifically allowing my children more autonomy in nature. Somehow, finding a way to be less anxious about allowing my children to explore the surrounding area around our country home shouldn’t be rocket science! As a facilitator of Simplicity Parenting based on the book by Kim John Payne, I’m doing a lot more personal reflection on my own hyper parenting habits! It’s sad that slow parenting, returning to nature, and letting our kids experience boredom is something we have to do proactively.

  3. Hi Debi and Raelee! I’m so glad you visited. I’m a huge fan of both of your blogs and I appreciate your heartfelt comments. Judging by yours and the comments on Slow Family’s Facebook page, this post really struck a chord.

    I think you’re so right, Debi, about the overprotectiveness and overscheduling that so many parents engage in — often to their kids’ detriments!

    You bring up great points, too, Raelee, about having to work at “slow parenting”. It doesn’t necessarily come naturally – in fact, many of us have to overcome a lot of cultural norms to practice it. I hope I’ll learn more about your work on Simplicity Parenting. All we can do is try to be more aware and give our kids good tools while, as Debi notes, also getting out of the way. (I have a teen, so this is really the stage we’re in — wings rather than roots.)

    I look forward to lots of continued conversation and wisdom with you both and with our wonderful community.

  4. This post really stirred up some comments on the Slow Family Facebook page. Some highlights:

    Elise: Great article! I wholeheartedly agree. A Treasure Hunt is top of the list as a party game in this household … as the years go on I am having to be more creative! Mapping skills well, I have no excuse my Dad & husband are surveyors!!!

    Lisa: Interesting study. I think these reasons for nature disconnect probably are just the tip of the iceberg. Another inherent problem is people are further and further away from nature. Cities are bigger and may not offer “true” nature. Another problem is parents seem to be busier than ever and priorities may not be in getting kids outside, but planting them in front of a movie so parents can unwind or get more work done. Family time and outdoor time should be priorities, but unfortunately our world seems to be headed down a different road. Just my two cents :)

    Xan: Fascinating. I remember drawing a map for my kids to get home on the bus when they were about 9 (pre cellphone). One day at the age of maybe 11, my son got off several miles too early. He started walking in the same direction the bus had been going til he got to something familiar. He was so proud of himself for finding his way home. I lost a lot of my worries about him out and about after that.

    Mia: It is a pleasure to read all the comments. Let’s get out and play more; I would love to acquire and learn, with my kids, how to use a Global Positioning System (GPS) device. How about a local treasure hunt for Easter?

  5. Eunice: It all starts with taking young children for walks around the neighbourhood, pointing out interesting landmarks and stopping to chat with that elderly couple sitting on their porch. Allowing children to experience life beyond their front gate or the interior of the family car.

    Suz: Of course I agree with you all! This study really struck a strong chord with people. I think it shows vividly how out of balance a lot of childhoods are, and how much we all want to help the children we know lead engaging, connected, self-sufficient lives. Elise, that’s very funny about the two surveyors in your family. You have no excuse to ever be lost! Xan, I love the story about your son’s self-sufficiency and powers of observation. I think the fact that you all drew maps and took the bus really helped. You trained your kids to observe their surroundings and place themselves within them. For some of the people in this study, that would be huge!

    Suz: Lisa, you’re so right about the many causes of nature disconnect – parental fear, lack of free time and open space, competition from media. A book called “Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv has been a big influence on me — Louv writes about a lot of these factors that you mention. Eunice and Mia, of course you both hit the nail on the head … See Moreabout just getting outside and exploring and playing. Until we honor that individually and set examples for our kids, they’re not going to do it on their own. I love what you say about neighborhoods, Eunice, and I cherish the relationships I have with all different neighbors and the way my daughter feels at home in our neighborhood and nearby city. She’s also having some experiences and can get around on her own. Mia, yes to a fun activity. I don’t have a GPS but I have some compasses. Let’s explore!

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