Many years ago, I was about to park in my garage one time with my 6-year-old nephew Nigel when he said he wanted to get off to show me something before we enter my house. I let him and watched him run into the then vacant lot beside my house. After I parked my car, I walked to where he went, and there he was, bent over something, seething with excitement, trying to catch his breath, saying "Tita, I discovered something…. It moves!!!!"
I looked at what he was pointing to. He said "Watch, Tita." He touched it and then, indeed, it moved. It was the plant commonly known as makahiya – my nephew had discovered it for the first time and was positively shaken by it. Do you remember your first "aha" moment shaking hands with nature's mysteries?
I have an old friend and colleague, Shawn, whom I meet every year in our regular annual conferences. A couple of years ago, when we were in New Zealand, we sat next to each other on a train. He was reading a book entitled Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv, an expert on child development. I think that book was among the first, if not the first, to coin "nature-deficit disorder" – a host of developmental problems that arise from children not having the very fundamental playground for their senses – nature.
Shawn gave me the book before our trip ended. He finished it and was so bothered by the trends that have been set into motion by urbanization, as well as the power of digital technologies in play in contributing to the nature-deficit disorder of children in the US (where he is from) and around the world. He said he has decided to be very deliberate in designing his children's education and experiences to ensure that contact with nature is part of that.
The positive impact of children's contact with nature is well-studied. It engenders children's length and quality of sleep, boosts levels of physical engagement, lowers stress, and significantly boosts attention, working memory, problem-solving skills, and creativity. Conversely, low levels of physical activity are greatly associated now with disproportionate time spent by children on screens, and are tied to behavioral problems.
Recently, a study came up with a way to measure urban children's connectedness with nature. This was a collaborative study done by researchers from the University of Hongkong and the University of Auckland in New Zealand. This is very significant because Hongkong is 100% urban, and over 60% of the world's population will be living in cities by 2030. This is a measure we should all be interested in if we care about our children and the adults they will become.
The measure is a 16-part questionnaire for parents so that they can assess their own children's connectedness with nature. It was able to sufficiently measure 4 dimensions: enjoyment of nature, empathy for nature, responsibility toward nature, and awareness of nature. The measure tallied with confirmed studies that showed that the more children enjoyed nature, the less distress they felt. It also showed that the more responsible they felt for nature, the less hyperactive they were and the more improved their prosocial behavior was. The measure also showed it aligned with studies that found that the more aware children were of nature, the less emotional difficulties they had.
Why and how nature does this to the inner life of children unleashes a chrysanthemum fireworks of answers. Many of them have to do with how simple but sublime experiences like a butterfly on your nose or a dragonfly on your hand imbues you with a sense of being alive, inside and in a world with other life forms, in a planet that holds us all.
Many answers, too, have to do with the sense of "loose parts" that Richard Louv mentioned in his book. "Loose parts" refer to the uncountable processes and creatures at work at any scene of a living moment that you are made aware of when you experience nature.
Nature experience is essential in the inner life of any child. It is not an option. I often tell the young people I work with that I am so sorry that their nature experience now is more of the imperative to restore the damage that past generations – including ours – had wrought. We broke it, but we now look to them to fix it. This is the nature experience that children have inherited from us: garbage, foul air, an overheating planet, bald mountains, dead waters. And here we are wondering why psychological issues have become serious early in childhood? – Rappler.com
Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, Science Solitaire and Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.