John Muir could turn a phrase and he knew a thing or two about nature and the importance of being outdoors too. He had personal and intimate knowledge of how the natural environment can affect us and was championing a more outdoor lifestyle over 100 years ago.
As we try to navigate our way out of our Covid lockdown, almost 100 years to the day since the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, it feels pertinent to look to history for some context, in the hope that in we can glean a little insight or, better yet, answers.
As one of the great adventurers and early environmentalists, John Muir was studying our impact on the natural world and its impact on us, yet even as he did this, in the mid 1800s, society was beginning to retreat indoors. Now, nearly 200 years since his birth, many of our communities are almost completely removed from nature.
Richards Louv’s 2005 book; Last Child in the Woods, coined the phrase – Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD). The term, though controversial, is now widely used to describe the correlation between children spending less and less time outside connected to the natural world, the rise of sensory and behavioural conditions and an alarming increase in child and adolescent mental health issues (McCurdy et al, 2010).
Although Muir’s words still carry weight, we no longer need to rely on them to extol the virtues of spending time in nature. We have an avalanche of research from around the world that confirms what Muir was saying all those years ago; that time spent outside, particularly for children, is inherently good for us and provides far more than the immediate or surface level benefits. The evidence of this is clear. The benefits of children playing outside in challenging, natural spaces is significant. Children who access free-play outside have better coordination and motor skills, they have improved problem solving abilities, better focus and are more resilient than those who don’t. And that’s not all, their physical and emotional health is better, they have more regular sleep patterns, generally perform better in school and are better at managing their social interactions and conflict too.
Yet despite all this research and knowledge we still live and work within systems and a society that places warmth and comfort above challenge, ‘attainment’ above experience and the avoidance of risk over resilience. We worry more about bad weather than children’s (and our own) wellbeing.
Despite all the positive things our politicians and sector leaders say, the research on how much time our children spend outside is damming – we have not prioritised time outdoors and we have not supported or championed outdoor play nearly enough. A UK survey from 2010, of over 2000 children, reported 64% of children play outside less than once a week and around 20% have never climbed a tree in their lives. There are, of course, multiple factor that have contributed to our current position but, never the less, the result is our children are outside less and less, travel shorter or no distances alone when they do, and spent virtually no time unsupervised. Whilst I fully understand the risks and factors that have led us here we can’t ignore the impact this is having on our children’s development and general health.
It’s a sobering reality, yet the winds of change have been blowing. The UK government statistics show the the British population has been starting to make moves back outdoors . It’s slow, nearly glacial at times, but it is happening and we must focus on these positives, because there is an opportunity in front of us right now. Covid-19 has been a tragedy and I in no way want to make light of the life threatening and, for some, life ending virus. It has been scary and unsettling and will, in time, negatively effect almost everyone. But, there have also been positives and we need to see them and exploit them.
As the hustle and bustle of our daily lives was abruptly removed and we were suddenly forced to spend unstructured, unplanned and enforced time at home we started to struggle. Gradually, we acclimatised to the change and finally we found a coping mechanism – time outside. Road traffic disappeared, bike sales rocketed and urban areas became a wash with pedestrians as we all started venturing out into the great outdoors. People are again going for their walk in nature and they are receiving far more than they were seeking.
It feels like we have a chance to keep this momentum up, keep our society engaged in the natural world and become more mindful of it’s enormous benefits, and its fragility if we don’t look after it.
The earth is starting to breath again too, the smog is literally lifting and there are green shoots of recovery appearing. We must recognise and value this change and grab the chinks of light that have appeared out of the darkness of those early lockdown days.
So, how do we improve our lives, our communities and our environment through nature? … We do the only logical thing; get our children and young people outside, into nature and allow them to lay the foundations that will give them, and all future generations, a lifetime of adventure and a deep connection with outdoor life and the natural world around them.
All the goodwill and evidence in the world didn’t get us back outside, it couldn’t convince us of the innate benefits of nature on our health, or development and our happiness. We are not, as a collective population, capable of ‘following the evidence’ but, we are driven by fear and, as negative an accretion as that is, it is a behaviour we can exploit. Never before have I heard so many people discussing the benefits of playing and learning outside and its not in the context of the above evidence, its in the context of this pandemic. It’s from the perspective of parents and carers worried about the transmission of the coronavirus. A virus that will survive and spread far better in enclosed and unventilated spaces. Spaces, by the way, that we designed and created to block out the wind and the rain and the sun’s natural UV rays… all things that inhibit and halt this virus’s progress.
So, as perverse as it may sound to play on the fears of parents, we should understand the potential it brings for positive, transformational change. Pragmatism should become our tool and we should move away from preaching the greater benefits for now and assume a more pragmatic and supporting position. Reassure and allay these fears by creating positive outdoor opportunities and show how well it can work. Show parents, carers and our fellow professionals that it is not just about moving the inside outside but it is about working differently, using the natural environment as our resource and toolbox and begin to play and learn with nature, not just in nature.
Its time for us to open the door and let people walk through (or outside), irrespective what their motivation might be, for every parent and child who walk in nature, we will all receive more that we were seeking.
John Muir was gently directing us outside all those years ago but we didn’t listen, maybe now we have a chance to to reignite his message and turn a global pandemic in to global change. But like any great change it always starts with a few determined and dedicated people and I think our numbers are growing. Parents and professionals alike are open to the change. It’s time to invite them out to join us instead of telling why they should.
CM, September 2020