Wanted: More Urban Children to Embrace Nature

Get child, put child outside, let child run around – why is this so difficult?

Near where I live in Brighton, England, there’s a country park called Seven Sisters. It’s magnificent. Seven arching, white-chalk cliffs elegantly crumbling into the sea with no regard for their own brilliance. When you stand up close to the cliff face from the pebbly beaches below, you can see the layers of sediment laid down over millions and millions of years, the subtly changing colors and composition chronicling times when sea levels were higher or lower or filled with tiny and abundant and now non-existent creatures. Take a group of inner city school children to see it, though, and the reaction is less awe and more ick.

The Sussex Wildlife Trust, a local conservation charity, runs school trips to various spots around the Seven Sisters. Volunteers with the organization regularly report students who don’t want to sit on the grass, who are distressed by the mud, who wobble along the cliff path trying desperately to avoid the sheep scat until they realize that this is impossible. One child from London, on being asked what he thought a pole-mounted kestrel nesting box was, replied that it was a speed camera.

They are funny stories useful for eye rolling and lamenting the youth of today, and of course someone who grows up in a dense urban area will have points of reference that are predominantly urban. But the routine for how we interact with the outside seems so instinctive and simple – get child, put child outside, let child run around – that its malfunction is deeply uncomfortable.

Widely reported problems with our increasing penchant for urbanization expand well beyond the economic and environmental, and issues ranging from increasing obesity to widespread depression and stress disorders have been pinned on our proliferation of concrete. Richard Louv’s best selling book Last Child in the Woods even attempted to link attention deficit disorders to what he calls nature deficit disorder.

On top of that, it leaves us with something of a conundrum. The future is supposed to be awesome and filled with energy efficient airships and lush urban farms, yet the present is filled with kids who are scared of grass. How can we convince these young people – tomorrow’s older people – to protect something they aren’t even engaged with, to suddenly wake up one morning and construct a vertical farm on the side of their concrete high rise? The path to the future may have been asphalted for easy access, but it seems we’re not tripping enough on the weeds that are breaking through.

“It’s not just children and young people. Obviously it comes from a society that’s increasingly city based and it’s adults as well who aren’t used to the great outdoors. And it’s not all, it’s a proportion,” says Nigel Flynn, head of education at the Sussex Wildlife Trust.

He points to the work they are doing to combat this phenomenon, such as promoting the innovative Forest Schools program and says just a little bit of contact with the outside world is all it takes.

“There was one particular village where the Parish woodland had become a dumping ground and was getting trashed. Several people got together and won a grant to clean it up and start activity groups. One weekend they would run a fathers and son group, another it would be mothers and toddlers, and it made a real difference. The respect came from contact.”

With more people now living in cities than not, the problems of urbanization are not going to go away any time soon (though there are equally abundant and promising opportunities for urban innovation), and it is perhaps this rigorous segregation that’s the problem; urban versus suburban versus rural. If we want to live in that green utopian future, then at some point they all have to meet and mingle. The young people of today are, in some respects, the most environmentally aware generation there has ever been. We can’t judge them for the cities they find themselves living in and their unfamiliarity with strange green places. We can help them out though and it starts with something very simple, a walk outside.

Image: Todd Baker

Editor’s note: This is Sarah Lewis-Hammond’s first article for EcoSalon. She reports from Brighton, UK.