The human need to connect with nature and the outdoors

(excerpt from Chapter 10, “Roots and Wings – Childhood needs a Revolution” by Alex Koster)

The young human needs his own kind –

namely animals, anything elementary,

water, dirt, ditches, room to play,

It’s possible to let him grow up without all of this,

With carpets, cuddly toys or on tarmac streets and yards too.

He’ll survive, but we should not be surprised, if he is unable in later life, to learn basic social skills.

(Translation from German, Alexander Mitscherlich, Psycho-Analyst 1908-1982)

As touched on briefly before, our society and children’s lives have changed considerably in the past 50 years at a very fast pace. Sadly, basic experiences, such as unsupervised play and a close connection to nature and the seasons are increasingly a thing of the past. Like most people of my generation, my own early childhood memories mainly relate to outdoor experiences: Meeting friends in the street or forest to play, building dens and tree houses, foraging for berries, mushrooms and nuts, ice skating on the nearby pond, cycling my bike to visit a friend in the next village, swimming in the stream, catching mini-beasts and rearing frogs from tadpoles, picking and eating wild cherries and strawberries, building igloos and having snow fights, I could go on and on getting lost in very fond memories…. Even as I write, I can see the health and safety warnings flashing in big red letters in my mind! Although I understand a lot of the reservations we have in our modern society, it makes me very sad to see how many children are deprived of these precious and basic experiences. Even within health and safety regulations, we as parents and educators have to make sure that our children can still immerse themselves in outdoor play, it is a fundamental part of childhood and growing up! Children learn from a very early age that our environment is threatened by various, mostly manmade, problems. They are aware that species are endangered and our planet is on the brink of catastrophe. This awareness is yet another source of stress and worry for them.

This theoretical knowledge often stands in stark contrast to the limited actual connection to nature, to direct experience, enjoyment and sensory immersion in all that nature and the outdoors has to offer. My six-year-old daughter came home the other day from school and freaked out when I rinsed my hands under the tap. She shouted at me: “Mama turn off the tap quick, otherwise the polar bears are going to die!!” I am not denying the severe threats to our Earth, but children should be able to actively be part of their environment, rather than worrying about issues that are far too abstract and overwhelming at a young age. Children should learn respect and love for their surroundings from the root, from direct experience. There is plenty of time to learn about a more global outlook.

To be honest, before I started writing this book, I never paid too much attention to the developmental, educational and even evolutional importance of outdoor connections to humans. It was just a status quo for me, the way I grew up, the way it should be for everybody. Sure, in my studies to become a teacher I came across the work of educators and philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) and John Dewey (1859 – 1952) who were probably the first promoters, even founders of experiential and outdoor education, but still the “real” importance only occurred to me quite recently, probably influenced by both my profession as well as becoming a parent. It was mostly the realisation that for many children nowadays, outdoor play and experiences aren’t a natural and regular part of their lives any more. Richard Louv (2005) calls this modern phenomenon “Nature-Deficit-Disorder”, although he points out that at this stage this is not an actual existing medical diagnosis

In his book “Kinder raus!” (Translation: “Kids outside!”) Malte Roeper illustrates the intrinsic ancient connection of us humans to the outdoors to this day as follows:

“Why are we modern humans touched by this strange emotion when we finally sit down at an open fire. This calming feeling, where does it come from? We sit, stare into the blaze and think: All is good. … This warmth, the flickering of the flames… We throw the next branch into the flames and know: We did the right thing. Can you remember your last night by an open fire? Was it enjoyable or not? We have long forgotten but deep within us we are still familiar and connected: To sit at a fire even centuries ago meant safety, protection, comfort. When our ancestors sat by a fire it usually meant a break in tough times and living conditions, a social event, food. In short “All is good”. A lot of these connections to different sensory experiences and our emotional reactions are rooted deep within us without us being aware of it. Why is it most desirable to live up on a height? Because it used to be the safest place. Why do we often like to have ponds, wells or pools in our gardens? Because it used to be a luxury to have drinking water close by. Why do children practice imitating animal sounds from a young age? Because it used to be necessary for hunting.” (Roeper, 2011)

Research shows, that when given the opportunity and choice, young children will still opt for outdoor play most of the time:

Margaret Kernan, in her aforementioned research paper, states that it is important to have a good understanding of the meaning of play activities from the perspectives of the children in order to be able to provide adequate play opportunities for children. She consulted multiple international studies and when asked about their play activities and preferences, most participating children in the various studies emphasised their preference for outdoor play among other important factors. (Kernan, 2007)

In their book “Wie Kinder heute wachsen – Natur als Entwicklungsraum” (“How children grow today – Nature as an environment/room for development”) Herbert Renz-Polster, a paediatrician and scientist, and Gerald Huether, professor for neurobiology, speak right from my heart, when they say, that for children and their development nature is not “optional”, it’s as essential as a healthy diet for growing up. Only in nature and the outdoors do they encounter all four non-negotiable sources for their development: freedom, immediacy, resistance and relatedness (connection). Children have an innate desire to connect with nature. They will strive towards it even in the most horrendous circumstances as the following example shows: In a report about “everyday life” in Mogadishu by Michael Obert, a small boy with a nasty scar on his forehead is seen to water a little tree with water trickling onto the tree through a hole in a plastic bag on the side of the road. When asked about it he answers with pride in his voice: “I planted it myself. My tree. I will care for it and when it’s big I will sleep in its shade!” (Obert, 2012)

It is my strong belief that we all as human beings need the conscious connection to nature in order to live a full and happy life. Life in general, and in this context mindfulness, is about connections, connection to ourselves, to others, to our environment, to nature, to the universe and beyond. We are all part of a big “whole”, anything we do and say has an effect on something else, which is why it is so important to be mindful in our thoughts, words and actions. I have always been fascinated by the theory of the “butterfly effect”, which is part of the chaos theory. Chaos Theory is a field of study in mathematics, with applications in several disciplines including meteorology, sociology, physics, engineering, economics, biology, and philosophy. In layman’s terms it basically studies the “knock-on-effect” of a highly sensitive action, such as the flutter of butterfly wings, and the unforeseeable major effects that can be triggered by such “insignificant” actions.

Read more about the importance of connecting children with nature in “Roots and Wings – Childhood needs a Revolution”

Also available now: Mindful Games for parents and educators.

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