Does your child spend too much time slumped in a chair staring at a smartphone, tablet or TV screen, and too little time outdoors, running, riding and playing in the fresh air – and connecting with nature?
Many parents think so, especially in developed countries, where greater wealth translates into gadgets for all.
In 2005, California-based author Richard Louv coined the phrase “nature deficit disorder” to describe the human costs of alienation from nature: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illness.
Today, children’s lack of engagement with the natural world is “one of the few concerns in America that brings people together across partisan and religious lines,” Louv writes in the upcoming edition of UN Environment’s Our Planet magazine.
Louv and others have produced many books and manuals packed with tips on how to get your kids off their electronics and plugged into nature. Here are seven that you could try for World Environment Day.
Setting up the tent, cooking on an open fire, hide-and-seek in the woods: camping can turn even the most sluggish couch potato into a ball of energy. Invite friends along, take lots of nice food and make sure everyone is equipped for bad weather, but don’t over-plan. The fun will unfold by itself, creating wonderful memories and a bond with nature.
The insect world is all around us, and is just as full of wonders as the animal and bird kingdoms. Even hairy, scary spiders and other ‘creepy –crawlies’ can hold and inspire young minds – once they are securely confined in an empty jam jar. Ask a group of kids to see how many different worms, bugs and butterflies they can find in half an hour, and you may be in for some surprises. At night, hang up a white cloth and shine a light on it – the bugs will soon land on the cloth so you can inspect them up close.
Soda bottle garden
Help your child to cut a soda bottle in half, put some rocks and soil into it and plant a few seeds of your family’s favourite vegetable. Water a little, put the top half of the bottle back on (with the lid), set in a sunny place and leave it under the child’s daily supervision. The seeds will soon sprout and may need transplanting outdoors within a week. You will have planted a nature-appreciating seed in a young mind. It may grow into lifelong wonder at how nature provides for us.
A secret place
Encourage your children (and their friends) to build a secret den, or help them to construct an awesome tree house. Make sure it is safe, weatherproof and comfortable with blankets, mattresses, hammocks. But let them take as much control as possible and make all the additions and modifications they can dream up (within reason). They will love spending time there, doing all kinds of things, surrounded by nature - even if it is sometimes to surf on a smartphone or tablet. Unless you are Captain Fantastic, you can’t win them all.
Many wild animals, from foxes and snakes to antelopes and leopards, are often shy of people and very good at keeping out of our sight. To find out what has been creeping past your home or school at night, living in a nearby wood or drinking at a local stream, splash some water on the ground to create a patch of soft mud and check it the next day for tracks. Mix some plaster and pour it into the print to make a cast. Many books and websites can help kids identify their finds.
It is a major thrill to hold an eagle or owl on your gloved fist. Birds of prey seem much bigger up close than they do up in the sky. Their fierce stare makes you hold your breath. You can feel the incredible strength of their talons when they shift their weight, even slightly. And if they suddenly take flight, your heart will skip a beat. Falconry clubs and bird rescue centres in many countries offer children this unforgettable connection with nature. Or if you happen to see a falconer out flying a hawk, they will likely be proud to show it off to curious youngsters.
If there is a tire swing in a tree, a child will climb onto it. If there is a cool bike leaning on the wall, a kid will want to ride. If there are gumboots near the door, a small person will soon be jumping in puddles, even if it is still raining. Is there something holding your child back from getting out there, or joining in some activity with their friends? Is their birthday or some other special occasion approaching? Get that gift right and they might pay you back in smiles and sound sleep on their return from an exciting outdoor playdate.