How nature-oriented was your childhood? Do you remember admiring flowers in full bloom, while chasing the butterflies and bugs hovering nearby?
That may not be an experience shared by youngsters today. A recent UK study has revealed 83% of children between the ages of five and 16 can’t identify a bumblebee.
When 1,000 children were shown pictures of native plants and animals, 82% did not recognize an oak leaf and nearly five out of 10 failed to spot a bluebell.
In the survey, carried out for the family activity application Hoop, 26% of children said they had little or no interest in nature. A third of parents blamed too much screen time.
The survey comes as there is increased awareness among adults of the restorative effects of nature, with many embracing activities like the Japanese practice of "shinrin-yoku" – forest bathing – to facilitate a feeling of well-being.
“Technology is miraculous, but so too is the living world, including the everyday nature with which we share our everyday lives. And this aspect of the world’s wonder seems presently at the margins of many children’s experience,” according to naturalist Robert McFarlane.
There is even a name for the problem: nature-deficit disorder. The phrase was coined in 2005 by Richard Louv, co-founder of the Children & Nature Network and author of The Last Child in the Woods, to describe human alienation from nature - and its contribution to attention difficulties, obesity and stress.
Now, the phrase has become a rallying cry for reintroducing children to nature.
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Bringing nature back to the playground
For children in urban areas, this often means finding ways to bring the living world to them. In the US, Green Schoolyards America is creating green spaces at schools, giving kids access to trails, nature play areas, vegetable plots and local plants, instead of just asphalt and sawdust. Outside of school hours, these areas can also be used by the local community.
In India, the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) is partnering with schools to develop nature learning programs that can be taught as part of the everyday curriculum.
“Children can explore nature in a variety of ways - from natural ecosystems that might be far away, to the gecko in the child’s home, to the plant on their balcony. We have been devising nature activities - about ants and tree bark, soil and birds, that children can carry out in their own neighborhoods,” NCF’s Suhel Quader said in a 2017 interview with the Child & Nature Network.
Meanwhile, the forest school movement in Britain was inspired by the Scandinavian idea of "frilufstliv", or open-air living. Children at schools in Nordic countries spend a lot of time playing outside, even in cold weather - and teachers use the opportunity to have them learn about math, science, and history in creative ways.
On an international scale, the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Nature and the Economy will meet to help advance its Biodiversity Action Initiative ahead of a UN conference in Beijing in 2020, which aims to establish new international targets to protect nature and biodiversity.