Are the kids of today becoming disconnected from nature?
That’s a concern that every parent and teacher must share. There are fewer green spaces in urban environments, increased road traffic, increased parental anxiety about letting their kids play unsupervised outside, leading to increased screen time indoors and so on.
Does this matter?
Sure it does.
Playing outside actively shapes brain development in children, helping them develop a decision-making process (Should I touch this? What happens if I lift this rock up? Where did the water go and why?), as well as giving them a sense of control, independence and survival instincts which are vital to a mature adult existence.
And, of course, most critically of all — we know that a connection with the wild environment enhances well-being, and young people who understand the natural world around them from childhood are more likely to be ecologically considerate adult citizens in later life.
In my new book, The Last Wild, in which the young hero, Kester Jaynes, battles to save the last animals left alive in the world from a mysterious virus, I’ve tried to recapture for today’s children the sense of excitement and possibility I got from playing in the big outdoors.
Magical schools, middle earths and dystopian games arenas are all great, but I wanted to remind today’s young readers that just as much adventure can be found right outside in their own backyard.
Here’s some tips you can try with your kids to get them connected.
1. Make it fun.
Get outside and visit that lake or that park, and make it fun. Download a list of birds, insects or trees — how many can they spot or collect? Can they recognize a bird just by its call? Show them — safely and carefully — how to climb a tree, identify weight-bearing branches and how to maintain three points of contact with the tree at all times. Games you make up together as a family group will make the child feel safe later if you decide to retreat to a safe distance!
And, in the car journey home, see if you can all make up a story together using the new places you’ve explored and the wildlife you’ve seen.
2. Use technology.
If your kid is addicted to her smartphone or tablet, then use that to get her addicted to the outdoors. Your kids can build up photo albums of the species that they spot. There are hundreds of apps to enjoy outside, whether they're collections of bird calls or outdoor games. The US Forestry service is releasing a great one called Discover the Forest, where characters from the new animated movie Rio 2 will guide your young ones to local forest and parks and suggest hundreds of great activities for them.
3. Touch and feel.
Nothing provides an antidote for too much time spent indoors hunched over a pale screen than getting really close to nature. And by close, I mean in it! Hide in that bush. Make a mud or sand castle. Swim in the lake or creek. Get wet, get dirty, get dry. No childhood is complete without being pricked by thorns, stung by nettles, or grazed by bark. Encountering and surviving these small skirmishes with the natural world at a young age prepares us to face the bigger challenges lying over the horizon, in adult life.