E.O.Wilson, retired Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, defines ‘biophilia’ as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life”. An increasing body of research is showing that humans have a natural desire to connect with nature and the outdoors, and not only find social and health benefits from being outdoors, but that time spent exposed to nature can play a part in curing many illnesses, both physical and mental. It seems, we are programmed to be in nature, despite our increasing urbalisation. And in recent generations, the move away from the countryside has been staggering; the US census in 1990 showed that the farm population in America had dropped from 40% in 1900 to less than 2% in 1990. Truly, we have become estranged from our greatest resource.
In his New York Times best- selling book Last Child In The Woods, author Richard Louv postulates that Nature Deficit Disorder amongst children is causing a wide variety of mental, physical, and social problems resulting from alienation from sensory experience, opportunity to exercise and socialise. Conditions such as obesity, ADHD, bullying and self harm are on the rise in children. Louv also details how opportunities for nature exploration have become limited, even criminalised, as playing fields and wild places are sold- off to developers. Often, the only experience children have of being outdoors is in the rather sanitised and sanctioned arena of sports a couple of times a week, if they are lucky.
Louv also received the Audubon Medal "for sounding the alarm about the health and societal costs of children's isolation from the natural world, and for sparking a growing movement to remedy the problem.” Since then other authors have provided further validation of Richard Louv’s ideas.
Echoing the groundbreaking work of student- centered educationalists Maria Montessori and the work of Waldorf- Steiner schools, developmental psychologist Peter Gray argues in his 2013 book Free to Learn, that in order for children to survive the fast- paced changes of today’s world we must permit them to steer their own learning and development. Allowing them to explore nature is a fundamental part of developing independence and creativity.
And in the book Balanced and Barefoot, Paediatric Occupational Therapist Angela Hanscom shows how outdoor play and unstructured freedom of movement are vital for children’s cognitive development and physical growth. Could we as adults learn something from this research?
In a recent ITV Countrywise episode, a colleague of mine from the Cheshire Wildlife Trust was featured running an outdoor classroom at a Forest School, with children learning about seasonal changes to plants and animals, trying some buschraft techniques, and craft projects. Fortunately these projects are becoming ever more popular and integrated with school curricula. Several educational charities and bodies now exist to promote nature education in an emerging market.
"Several children who previously found it difficult to integrate with others are now more able and willing to do so. Quieter children have now found their voice in class and ask more questions and are more confident."
Steve McQuade, Mabin's End Primary School
Are you interested in developing nature education initiatives as part of a new career? A variety of professionals are retraining in conservation, country crafts and horticultural therapy to fill this expanding niche. ADL have many vocational and academic courses which could help you boost your portfolio and make a rewarding career change, by offering manageable self directed courses you can do in your spare time.
Gray, Peter. Free To Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. Basic Books, 2013.
Hanscom, Angela. Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children. New Harbinger, 2016.
Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. 2005 (Revised & expanded 2008). Atlantic Books.