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Our Children are Losing the Experience of Nature

We are becoming estranged from nature.

Some 80% of people in the UK live in urban areas and the rest of the world is heading in that direction. Yet, as a species, we evolved in and were moulded by nature - so surely that long million year evolution has left a deep imprint on our inner selves. Can we really cut ourselves off from nature and expect no consequence, whether for ourselves or for our environment?

Dan Myers has answered the first part of this question in his article about the importance of nature in personal physical and mental health. And his conclusions are supported by a growing body of research that demonstrates how medical outcomes for patients are greatly enhanced by contact with nature. Further than that, contact with nature is important in helping to maintain good health and avoid illness.

It doesn’t have to be remote or wild places either. A park, a green space or simply a sight of trees can be enough to lift the mood and promote well being.

The second part of the question above is answered beautifully by Robert Michael Pyle in his book ‘Thundertree’. He says: "I believe that one of the greatest causes of the ecological crisis is the state of personal alienation from nature in which many people live.” He calls this alienation the ‘Extinction of Experience.’

To use the words of Richard Attenborough: "No one will protect what they don’t care about and no one will care about what they have never experienced."

Many adults have had the good fortune to grow up having contact with nature, something that we have taken for granted. Maybe we walked to school, or could play where there was grass and trees and the sound of birds. Living in the Peak District we are fortunate to have the sight and sounds of the natural world close by. But that is not the experience of a growing number of people and in particular for children.

National Trust Natural Childhood Report

The National Trust report ‘Natural Childhood’ shows that a majority of young people now suffer from what they call a ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’. While not a formal clinical condition, the Trust refers to a range of very concerning trends that are affecting young people's well-being. These, it claims, can be reversed by interacting with nature.

The report finds that 11–15-year-olds spend about half their waking lives in front of a screen: 7.5 hours a day, an increase of 40% in a decade. Young people are, in effect, suffering a ‘well-meaning, protective house arrest’.

Less than 10% children walk to school, down 90% in 30 years. Two thirds of 10 year olds have never been to a shop or park by themselves. Less than a quarter of children visit a local patch of nature regularly, and less than 1 in 10 play in any wild places compared to half of their parental generation. As a consequence most kids can’t name common wildlife, yet 90% recognised a Dalek.

The report also notes a clear decline in physical health of young people, with an obesity epidemic, a marked decline in an ability to do physical activities, and cardiovascular health down 10% in a decade. In addition 10% of 5-16 year olds have been diagnosed with mental health problems. In a survey of childhood well-being in 21 developed nations, the UK came bottom.

Green Party policy recognises that a great many people benefit from a ‘reconnection' with nature and that countryside recreation serves to enhance general health and wellbeing, both physical and mental. Planning policy must ensure that all people in a neighbourhood have affordable access to parks or open spaces. Elected Greens will work to promote the health and well-being benefits of public access to nature.

Richard Louv, author of ‘Last Child in the Woods’ concludes: ‘If we are going to save... the environment, we must also save an endangered species: the child in nature.’

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