Magazine article Geographical

Lost in the Concrete Jungle

Magazine article Geographical

Lost in the Concrete Jungle

Article excerpt


Whether the blame rests with television, overprotective parents or litigation culture is unclear, but more and more children are growing up with little or no direct contact with nature. And an increasing body of evidence suggests that this could be having a negative effect not only on their own well-being but on that of the plant itself. Victoria James meets the committed activists working to reverse the 'nature deficit'.

When I was seven, in the early 1980s, I ripped my brand new kilt falling from an oak tree. When I was 11 and we had just moved house, I made some jam sandwiches and set out for a day exploring the sheep-filled fields opposite our new home. When I got my first big-girl's bike, I cycled to a nearby stream with a friend, where we spotted a basking adder.

For US author Richard Louv, the memories are slightly different: climbing up Osage orange trees, hiking in the Missouri woods and riding a horse down by nearby marshland. 'As a kid,' he tells me, 'I had an intense sense that nature did something for me that was profound, although I couldn't have put that into words."

In 2005, Louv tried to put at least some of that sense of childhood inspiration into a book, Last Child in the Woods. Along with the wonder, however, went a body of research--his own extensive interview fieldwork, and the papers of social scientists and child-health experts--that showed how the sorts of childhood experiences he and I recall are now vanishingly rare, and that the consequences may be more far-reaching than anyone had realised.

Louv's argument is a simple one: childhood has changed beyond recognition in the past three decades. Play has moved from the outdoors to the indoors because, as one teenager told him, 'that's where all the electrical outlets are'. (My family got its first computer--an Acorn Electron that took half an hour to load programs from a cassette--around the time I saw that adder. Reading Louv's book, I think about this and wonder if I was among the last of those 'last children in the woods'.)

Childhood has also changed because parenting has changed. By the late 1980s, when Louv was researching a study entitled 'Childhood's Future', he recalls how 'the old book on parenting had been thrown out. I taped interviews with 3,000 people and looked for repeating themes. One was that parents and kids had this sense that something profound was happening with children and nature.'


Parental anxiety

Today, many parents, overworked and bombarded with media stories of abduction, keep their children to timetabled activities and are too anxious to allow them free play outside. As recently as a decade ago, a British study showed that the radius within which children roam freely around their homes has shrunk by almost 90 per cent since the 1970s.

Little improves once children get to school. School playing fields have been sold off, use of the outdoors as a 'natural classroom' has dwindled as educators stick to rigid curricula, and school trips are scaled back by school authorities fearful of accidents and lawsuits.

Today's children, Louv suggests, are suffering from 'nature deficit'. He emphasises that the term isn't a medical diagnosis, but sets out its wide-ranging and deeply concerning consequences. Papers produced by health researchers have linked everything from childhood obesity to the rise in behavioural disorders to the decline in children's free-ranging play. Psychologists point to the developmental benefits to children of playing alone or with others in wild environments--fostering independence, co-operation, creativity--and of the cross-generational trust and respect created when children explore nature accompanied by responsible adults, all of which is now in jeopardy. And then there's the long-term risk to the planet of a future in which few feel grounded in the natural world. …

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