“No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced”
Early contact with nature plays an important role in developing pro-environmental values and behaviours. Time in nature is not just leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health, well-being and education. However, there is growing evidence that children are increasingly disconnected from the natural world.
Without direct experiences in nature, research findings suggest that children are missing opportunities to enhance their health and well-being, and to develop responsible long-term environmental behaviour.
Nature-deficit disorder describes the detrimental effects on humans as a result of this increased divide between children and nature. Today, children are aware of the global threats to the environment, but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading. A number of recent international surveys indicate that fewer children are experiencing nature directly, with the majority of children playing indoors more often than out; this has been exacerbated by young people’s experience of Covid. The surveys highlight that many young people are ‘glued to the virtual world’ and are far removed from nature, lacking knowledge of biodiversity and awareness of its importance. They conclude that further effort is needed to make nature more available to children, and to inform and empower a future generation of environmental champions.
Connection with nature and outdoor learning needs to be at the heart of the curriculum. Schools should therefore be aware of potential for this in their grounds, in the very local environment (i.e. walkable from their school) and within the city, including the beach and the South Downs.
The benefits of a childhood connection with nature.
Many studies show the positive links between direct experiences in nature and children’s mental, emotional and physical health and well-being.
The studies show that regular direct access to nature can:
- increase self-esteem and resilience against stress and adversity
- improve concentration, learning, creativity, cognitive development, cooperation, flexibility and self awareness
- prevent childhood obesity.
- improve behaviour and motivation
Research found that participation with nature before age 11 is particularly potent in shaping both environmental attitudes and behaviours in adulthood. This foundation of empathy and connection with nature may then extend into environmentally responsible actions and empowerment, as the child grows older and discovers opportunities to develop pro-environmental behaviours We need to allow children to develop their biophilia, love for the Earth, before we ask them to academically learn about nature and become guardians of it. It is therefore vital that at the heart of this strategy is a strong commitment from schools to extend and enrich young people’s opportunities to connect with nature.
The field of environmental education is characterized by key underpinnings, including:
- a focus on learners of all ages—from early childhood to seniors
- a focus on the importance of experiential, interdisciplinary education, and helping all learners develop problem solving and decision-making skills
- the development of an understanding of how to be a civically engaged citizen, and how to create a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable society.