If you’re like me and you grew up in the 90’s you will probably agree with me that we grew up in a crazy sort of transition period. I don’t know exactly what to call it, but if you look back to childhood in that decade it might appear to be one of the most confusing time periods for children since the turn of the 20th century. What I’m referring to is the drastic change that took place in regard to what children do for fun. I recall getting my fair share of experience splashing in puddles and climbing trees and exploring the local creek alone or with a couple of friends (yes, without adult supervision). Yes we watched our fair share of television, which consisted primarily of the Magic School Bus and Arthur, and we embraced the proliferation of handheld video games like the Gameboy Colour and the Nintendo 64, but we still stood on this fine line between “classic” outdoor childhood antics and the more docile habits of today’s children. I’m not going to go on a rant about “kids these days” and how there is something wrong with them in comparison to how kids grew up prior to this digital era. No, I want to argue that it’s not the kids that have changed, but rather the society of the adults who are raising them have changed and are responsible for how children live and behave today.
I recently read an intriguing book by George Monbiot, a trained Zoologist and writer for the Guardian, called How Did We Get Into This Mess?: Politics, Equality, and Nature. In his book he dedicates a section on the lives of children today and their interactions (or lack thereof) with nature, specifically in the UK. He notes the decline of outdoor environments in which children play, the lack of community design with the child in mind, and profound effect that the exploration of nature can have on children. He quotes a study by the schools inspection service, Ofsted, in the UK, that reports that giving children the opportunity to have out-of-classroom experiences had several benefits such as raising motivation, personal development, and personal standards. I have to say that his point is clear when I look at the lives of my own younger siblings and the children in their lives.
With some exceptions, many of the school-age children that I’ve encountered here in urban southern Ontario seem to have very little experience outdoors. They may have been raised to believe that the outside is dirty or unsafe. They may not be allowed outdoors alone which can severely limit opportunities to explore and get your hands dirty. Mobile devices like iPads and smartphones are not inherently bad, but many children are given one of these at a very young age, and as I’ve observed it leads to a lot of couch-sitting and less motivation to go outside. It’s not the child’s fault though. Children don’t typically have the funds to purchase their own mobile device and they often don’t have a say in what they are allowed to do and where they are allowed to go. There is definitely a heightened sense of protectiveness among parents in regard to letting their children go out alone, and in some cases this is certainly justified. But parents don’t always have the energy or time to accompany their children on adventures down the street to the local stream or forest (provided one exists in their neighbourhood).
As a child I recall playing around the ephemeral ponds that would show up after a rain storm and building log bridges to cross them to avoid filling my boots with water. My younger siblings sought to play in the same places but one by one these natural playgrounds would get removed, often because it was noticed that children had the habit of playing there and for whatever reason that had to be put to an end. The provision of places in neighbourhoods for children to enjoy nature is something that we don’t think about very much. As George Monbiot mentions in his book, neighbourhoods are often designed by housing developers and without much thought for where children will interact with nature. This is particularly evident in suburban housing developments where a steel or plastic playground might be included by there are no forested areas left over or even remotely unmanicured areas to be explored by the neighbourhood’s youth.
According to a meta-study (a study of studies) by the Institute for European environmental policy, access to nature is linked to reduced depression and obesity. A study by the University of British Columbia found that adults are more likely to care for and protect nature if they have been given the opportunity to explore and appreciate the natural world as a child. Some feel the need to point the finger at children and often say that “kids these days” aren’t spending enough time outside and spend too much time in front of screens. The blame tends to fall on these kids for having a lack of imagination or some sort of perpetual habit for being bored. It’s not up to the children to design our neighbourhoods, provide places for them to explore nature, and get them learning outside of the classroom, it’s up to us as adults. It’s not children who have perpetuated the change from the monkey-bar hanging, puddle-jumping, fort-building children of the past, to the often bored, screen-bound children of today. It is society that’s changed. It is parents that have changed. If we want to ensure the success and health of our next generations, it starts with giving them more opportunities to explore the natural world that we were all born to interact with. We can demand more input as community members in the design of our neighbourhoods. We can support more outdoor education programs with our schools. And we can help our children find that natural space to explore and learn from. If we want the next generation to be healthy, to appreciate the natural world, and work hard to protect it, then it starts with giving them the chance to be kids in nature.
About Devin Hock (KWIC Blog Contributor)
Originally from Caledonia, Ontario, Devin is a recent graduate of Trent University's Environmental Science program. Devin's interests concern global and local environmental law and policy and how these subjects are conveyed and understood by the public. He is an avid whitewater canoeist and camper.