Children are gradually spending less time in nature. Studies and reports from different parts of the world indicate that this is an international and growing tendency.
Considering one aspect alone, this should not be a surprise: Increasing urbanization reduces children’s chances of being in contact with green areas – which is, of course, also true for grown-ups. According to the United Nations, 55% of the world’s population already lives in urban areas, and this proportion is bound to increase and reach 68% by 2050.
The roots of the problem are more complex than only urban growth, though.
Another factor that plays a significant role is the (lack of) security. Parents and responsible adults believe it’s safer to keep their kids at home, where someone can keep an eye on them, and it’s easy to understand why. “Security reasons” has been mentioned in studies in a variety of countries as motivation for keeping the little ones indoors.
Besides, according to research conducted in Norway, adults don’t have much time to go out with the children – and for the children themselves, it’s not rare to have too much homework, additional classes (sports, languages, etc.) and, well, to be pretty much entertained at home. TV, smartphones, tablets, video games, and other electronic devices contribute to their spending less time outdoors, especially in nature spaces.
Although this trend’s manifestation and distribution vary from region to region, it’s important to note that this is real, and documented in places as diverse as Brazil and Norway. A study conducted in 10 countries, published in 2016, showed that more than half of the children spent one hour or less playing outdoors.
The sooner people are aware of it and understand the possible impacts, the better. After all, there are negative consequences involving both children and nature.
For one, nature contributes to the overall health of children.
The effects of this disconnection between kids and the natural world are the object of study of different research projects, and there is more to find out. Roughly, what can be said is that their results point at the direction of advantages being brought by contact with nature. This means, naturally, that disconnecting implies losing such benefits.
Evidence showed that in England, Germany, Lithuania, and Spain, green neighborhoods have benefited mental well-being. Among such benefits are faster recovery from stress, better attention span, fewer attention deficit disorder symptoms, greater resistance to depression, and being propelled into decision making.
Educators also mention that contact with nature favors creativity. An example that can make it clear is a piece of wood in a green area being found by a kid. Nature is unstructured, this stick can be used to play in many ways, there is no manual or rules; and this is what such inputs are about.
The other side of the problem concerns nature; more specifically, the future of sustainability movements.
They are necessary to keep us on track for a sustainable world, but who is going to push them further? The naturalist David Attenborough goes straight to the point: “No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”
If children are losing contact with nature, why should they care? Are they able to value what they don’t know? Do they value what they cannot name? This last question is especially interesting considering the famous study in the United Kingdom that concluded that children could name more Pokémon characters than native species.
Researchers, educators and the media are aware of this scenario and worried, but many others are not. This is the case with many families, too.
When people consider environmental problems, they tend to think about the future and new generations not only as the main victims, but also the main solution. They believe that teaching children about our unbalanced relationship with nature right now is the key to guaranteeing a better future. Indeed, this helps to a certain extent; but sadly, things seem not to be so simple.
Several studies pointed out that experiences in nature during childhood differentiate environmentally active people from those who are less committed. Academic evidence supports the claim that these direct experiences positively influence attitudes and activism concerning nature later in life.
To think that the children of today are better informed and sensitized about environmental problems is valid and is good. But if we think about it, adults are also informed but don’t necessarily take action.
Why would it be different with children?
In other words, children are indeed more aware of environmental problems than in the past, but this alone is not enough. Many of us are aware of environmental problems, and our behaviors and attitudes do not consistently change – there is a lot of research about this as well.
There is a big distance between our potential reality and being able to count on the next generations to solve problems that are just getting worse: garbage, global warming, hunger, and the whole lot. The growing list of issues, and distance between children and nature, indicate that to leave it up to them to solve this in the future, as adults – assuming they even have the conditions to do it – might just be another comfortable excuse not to deal with the problem now.
Furthermore, our expectations are too high in regards to the future and younger generations.
Somehow the idea that children are the future was put together with the belief that they love animals, flowers and other natural elements; it’s not uncommon to see texts, even in the media, preaching that to put the world back on the sustainability track, we should invest in the children.
It’s a nice hope, but it might not be healthy to count on that.
Maybe it’s time to rethink putting on children’s shoulders such responsibility for the future. Or be responsible now, instead of passing the responsibility forward – a cliche when it comes to environmental problems – and do something about it. That includes thinking in which ways it would be possible to reconnect kids with the natural world, so that they will actually be more inclined to act to protect it in the future.
Part I of series: “A fresh gaze”
This series is an invitation to take a fresh look at topics we already know. This might mean we’ll leave beliefs behind, stop romanticizing some concepts, or just keep up with new data. One way or another, the idea is to exercise approaches that can allow us to make better choices.
By Manoella Oliveira
Manoella Oliveira is a Brazilian journalist who holds a Master’s degree in Media and Communication Science, with a post-grad in Environmental Management.