Thursday, 23 November 2017

Children and Nature

I talked last week about how children used to roam widely, and now tend to stay at home -- a trend that probably contributes to the rise in obesity and mental illnesses among young people. The fact that children stay home so much also means that they have little contact with Nature, that connection that keeps us grounded and healthy, and allows us to care about the world around us.

In his book “Last Child in the Woods” and “The Nature Principle,” US author Richard Louv coined the phrase “Nature-deficit disorder,” which comes from children no longer exploring woods or bogs and having adventures. Children who are obsessed with computer games or driven from sport to sport, Louv maintains, miss the restorative effects that come with the nimbler bodies and sharper senses that are developed during random running-around in wild places.

A University of Illinois study found that children with the symptoms of attention-deficit disorder were brought into the woods for a short time, and showed a marked decrease in their symptoms.
Drug companies will no doubt make billions prescribing medicines for problems that could be fixed by a walk in the woods.

“If when we were young, we tramped through forests of Nebraska cottonwoods, or raised pigeons on a rooftop in Queens, or fished for Ozark bluegills, or felt the swell of a wave that travelled a thousand miles before lifting our boat, then we were bound to the natural world and remain so today,” Louv wrote in The Nature Principle. “Nature still informs our years, lifts us, carries us. For children Nature comes in many forms – a newborn calf, a pet that lives and dies, a worn path through the woods, a fort nested in stinging nettles, a damp mysterious edge of a vacant lot. Whatever form Nature takes it offers each child a taste of an older, larger world, separate from parents. Unlike television, Nature does not steal time, but amplifies it.”

In a recent talk, Louv pointed out that we’re all still hunters and gatherers biologically, and there is something in us that needs to see Nature and be around it -- but many of us deal with it no more than we have to. He tells the story of going to a Nature preserve near where he lives with gang members from San Diego; they were big tough guys, he said, but they were scared – one said that there were two or three sounds in his neighbourhood and he knew what all the sounds meant. Here in the woods, he said, there were dozens of sounds, and he didn’t know what any meant.

Louv says that while Nature can be dangerous, we have to let kids experiment with that danger -- within reason -- and learn from it. A child who grows up never experiencing any danger is a child that doesn’t feel boundaries in the world, save those set by authorities.

When a child experiences Nature, they grow up to care more about protecting the environment, according to a new Cornell University study. The study published in the journal Children, Youth and Environment, found that while gardening helps kids care about the natural world, it doesn’t have as strong an impact as camping, playing in the woods, hiking, walking and fishing.

In such places, children create their own adventures, from toddlers pulling up rocks and seeing the creeping things underneath to the boys jumping over creeks, telling ghost stories and searching the lake for pirates. In the minds of children the most meagre and scruffy of woodlands can become a place of adventure, a chance to test their bravery and skills, a secret and dangerous place to gather with other children. A patch of land that most developers would consider useless and unproductive, will instead produce the best memories of childhood, if we let it.  

In this age, people are more separated from the natural world than ever, and transforming it more than any society before us. Of course we can work to conserve energy, use less and defend our lands and the things on them, but there is one, more fundamental thing we need: to understand why these things are valuable, and worth preserving.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Letting children roam

Published this week in the Kildare Nationalist.

When I talk to my elderly neighbours, or read interviews with people from earlier eras, one of the things that most comes through about their childhoods, and seems dramatically different than the way children are raised today, is how far and freely they roamed. Unlike most modern children, they did not spend most of their time indoors watching television or playing video games, or following one adult-led activity after another.

Rather, most described roaming several miles from home in a day, exploring the far corners of their world. They ambled over fields and mountains, woods and bogs, climbing trees, swimming in streams and ponds, and drying their clothes on branches. They searched in the hedges for birds’ nests, through the underbrush for mushrooms and snails, let millipedes and ladybirds crawl on their hands, and peered in the holes of hedgehogs and badgers. By their recollections, they spend nearly all day in some vital physical activity, and learned to be creative, solve problems and find our way out of trouble.

Of course, some children in earlier eras inevitably got into mischief; I have on my shelf a 19th-century garden book that lists among the many garden pests, between boll weevils and butterflies, “boys.” If your garden has an infestation of boys, it notes drily, some aggressive dogs might be just the thing.

 “The only rule was to be home by dinner time,” Tracy Gillett wrote of her father’s upbringing. “My Grandma rarely knew exactly where her kids were. They were off building forts, making bows and arrows, collecting bruises and bloody knees and having the time of their lives. They were immersed in childhood.”

Writer Tom Purcell remembers that when he was growing up in Pittsburgh, they “collected scrap wood and built shacks. We damned up the creek and caught minnows and crayfish. One summer, we built a motorized go-cart with some scrap items from a junked riding mower and a couple of two-by-fours. It was one of the great engineering feats in my neighbourhood's history. Occasionally, we'd fib to our mothers and ride our bikes 20 miles farther than we said we would … There was only one major rule a kid had to abide by: you'd better be home in time for supper.”

Until now. A recent UK study chronicled the loss of childhood freedom over four generations -- from children in the 1920s who roamed an estimated radius of six miles from home, to their great-grandchildren who rarely see the outdoors. The report's author said that keeping children indoors and away from Nature injures their long term mental health in ways we can’t always foresee.

According to one study in the U.K., while 80% of third-graders were allowed to walk to school in 1971, that number had dropped to just 9% in 1990, and is even lower today. Parents started prohibiting their children from walking or riding their bike to and from school by themselves out of the fear that they might be kidnapped along the way.

Yet abductions are exceedingly rare, and no more common now than they were several decades ago. Further, a child has a 40-times greater risk of dying as a passenger in a car than being kidnapped or killed by a stranger.

I see this with my own daughter, who rode her bicycle to school – about three kilometres away – for years. Now that she is in secondary school, she still sometimes goes to the bus stop herself – the same distance – and then to school, or to somewhere else on weekends. To our surprise, though, almost no other children did this. I understand the concern about traffic -- Irish roads rarely have bike lanes and often have sharp bends – but I never saw any children on the empty side roads either.

Right now, we’re seeing an unprecedented number of mental disabilities and neuroses in modern children, and obesity is becoming a major health concern. If we are to raise our children to be as confident, self-sufficient and capable, we have to let them roam a bit. If you understand that free-range chickens live happier and healthier than those in a tiny cage, and that free-range cows are better off than those that spend their lives in a pen, then let’s consider treating our own species with the same respect, and raising a generation of free-range humans.
Photo of my daughter on the Burren some years ago; she doesn't often let me take pictures of her anymore.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Happy Celtic New Year

The Irish celebrate Halloween with fireworks, as Americans would Independence Day -- as I found out when I first moved here a few days before Halloween with a new baby. And on distant country hilltops and outside Dublin tenements, people build giant bonfires.  

Originally it was the day when the veil between this world and the next grew ragged, and things could pass through. It’s the midpoint between the equinox and the winter solstice, or Christmas; it marked New Year's Eve in traditional Ireland, when the nights grow truly long and dark, when the skies grow dim, and when we first feel the bite of winter. It is the day when it seems most appropriate to remember loved ones that have died, as we do in our house, a bit of gravitas to go with the trick-or-treating of children and the heedless bloodletting on the television.

The more we learn to live with the seasons, the more I see the logical pattern of old holidays. Six weeks after Christmas, the midpoint between the Christmas and the spring equinox, is Bridget’s Day here, Groundhog Day or Candlemas elsewhere. Six weeks later is the equinox, and the first Sunday after the first full moon after the equinox is Easter. Six weeks after the equinox, halfway to the summer solstice, comes May Day, once widely celebrated in the USA and now not even a memory.

My more devout friends back in the USA resent hearing the astronomy behind, say, Christmas or Easter, believing it distracts us from “the reason for the season.” I understand – they are flooded by a culture that exploits holy days to sell people more things they don’t need, and they want to protect their children’s innocence and preserve the day's meaning. I get it.

In purging their lives of the shopping-mall culture, though, they inadvertently throw out some of their oldest traditions. The holidays celebrate the cycle of creation, and the religious commemorations were placed there because of the season, not the other way around – the birth at the turn of the year, the Resurrection at the season of new life. The pagan seasonal markers do not supersede the holy days, but ante-cede them, marking another turn on our journey from this world to the next.

In the same way, I know many sects who worship in bare rooms and plain churches, and I’m glad it works for them. My second-favourite churches have the rich colours and flamboyant architecture of Catholic churches, an explosion of praise frozen in stone. But the best religious service I have ever attended took place in an old forest near us, by candlelight. There, a crowd gathered around the priest under a green canopy, amid living pillars whose lives stretch so far beyond our own, in a tiny remnant of what was once the first and greatest of cathedrals.

I used to walk through those woods every week with my daughter, and now that she is a teenager I walk alone. I hope I can walk through them with her again soon, for while I don’t always go on a Sunday, every visit feels like a Sabbath.