Conservationist Matt Williams shows the importance of reconnecting everyone, especially boys, back to the natural world.
In my last piece, I focused on the importance of connection to nature for men in helping to provide the space and time for processing emotions and connecting to something greater.
Sadly, such experiences with me and my friends are becoming increasingly rare. People, especially children, are becoming ever more disconnected from nature.
A combination of factors are driving this, from busier lives, increasing cultural artefacts (fancy words for TVs, social media etc.) invading our homes, the disappearance of green spaces in our towns and cities, parental fear of strangers and more traffic near our homes. Adverts sell consumerism, and some even target the outdoors, depicting it as boring and uninspiring – see this advert from Toys ‘R Us.
Even people who live in the suburbs or countryside don’t necessarily have the time or opportunity to connect with nature. For example, recent research shows that parental attitudes make a huge difference and that some children in the heart of Wales are more disconnected from nature than children in the UK’s capital city.
But surveys with children show that the overwhelming majority want to spend more time outdoors and greatly value the natural elements of the places they play in.
This is having a large impact. Both adults and children are shown to benefit substantially from contact with nature, even just the outdoors. A recent literature review has shown that there is a wealth of evidence for the psychological, spiritual, mental and physical health benefits of time spent in nature.
Children who spend more time outdoors in nature are likely to be more active throughout the course of their lives and less prone to problems like obesity. They also learn better and their mental health is improved.
They are also more likely to develop a lifelong passion for, or at least connection to, nature, and so will be more likely to take action to save it. As a conservationist I recognise that this is hugely important and conservation organisations are beginning to realise this too. The Wild Network and Natural Childhood Partnership in the UK are just two examples of large drives by conservation charities to reconnect our children with nature.
David Bond, Director of Project Wild Thing, told me “I’ve just spent three years making Project Wild Thing, a feature documentary about getting kids back to nature. I talked to families, conservationists, play experts and branding gurus about how best to reconnect kids with nature. I tried to lead by example, taking my own children – Ivy (6) and Albie (4) – out into nature as much as possible. At the park or down by the river, my kids calmed right down. They became less aggressive and more playful. I discovered what I’ve always known: children love nature.”
Taking time to be outdoors with your kids can also enrich your relationship with them. David’s experience attests to that, and while I don’t have any children of my own I know that some of the most rewarding and treasured memories I have are spending time in nature with my Dad,when he indulged my fascination for anything that moved and had more than two legs, wings or fur.
The mental and emotional health of our children are crucial not only to their wellbeing but also to that of wider society.
A particular body of research focuses on the particular effect natural settings can have on reducing mental fatigue – a symptom of time spent in busy urban areas, and which can particularly afflict those in inner-city environments. Poverty also adds to the stress that causes mental fatigue, and can often go hand in hand with an inner-city environment with very little access to green spaces.
Mental fatigue is in turn strongly associated with certain kinds of aggression and even violence. Time spent in nature helps to restore people’s ability to focus their attention and reduces the levels of stress linked to this fatigue. Nature, even trees on people’s doorsteps, can therefore play an important role in reducing aggression and violence.
Spending time in nature can reduce the symptoms of ADHD by up to 30% among children and it’s no surprise that a study of an outdoor adventure park found that levels of juvenile crime were cut by 54%.
Young boys and men in particular are prone to violence and aggression which can spiral into crime. This is termed ‘young male syndrome’ by psychologists and some claim is linked to evolutionary factors. Evidence suggests that violence and even crime in young adulthood among men can be predicted by higher than normal levels of aggression in childhood.
It seems likely that more nature and green spaces could help to reduce stress, in turn aggression and violence and maybe even crime among our young men. Starting this access to nature early in boyhood and adolescence could have long-term benefits in young adulthood.
So, more opportunities for children to spend time in nature in our communities and at school will definitely benefit their learning and their mental and physical health. And, a growing body of research suggests it could also nip in the bud problems that can lead to violence and crime among young men later in life. While this is not going to be a silver bullet solution, and many other factors are at play, this is an important and under-recognised area of research.
I would call for three key steps to change the current state of play:
- Men: get outdoors and spend time in nature, with your children or volunteer at a project near you which aims to get kids outdoors and enjoying nature.
- Our governments need to use the curriculum to ensure that children spend more time outdoors as part of their education, and more time learning about the natural environment. Let’s use urban planning to make sure we all have nature on our doorsteps.
- Conservation NGOs should invest more in expanding their amazing existing initiatives to help children get outdoors and connect with nature (here and here) and should explore new policy areas to work on, such as advertising to children.
Developing more people who are connected to nature and care enough to protect it will be crucial for ensuring the long-term health of the natural world. This has great potential and means we’ll have happier and healthier children, parents and communities.
It’s time to get outdoors!
–Photo: Matt Adam Williams
–References are available from the author on request.