The PlayShifu Digest

World Nature Conservation Day: Getting children to feel connected to nature

I write this piece on the occasion of World Nature Conservation Day. The usual questions are doing the rounds: Why is world nature conservation day celebrated? Why is the conservation of resources important? And, there’s enough material available on them. So, let me start with a more ‘basic’ question.

Why do we want to save something?

Because it is of value to us. How do things gain value? Now, this is where the conversation about nature takes different paths. On the one hand, what the earth provides in terms of resources–air, food, water, minerals, and fossil fuels, among other things–is of value when extracted from it. On the other hand, overusing the earth’s resources can lead to complex phenomena–climate change, food insecurity, water shortage, and more–that affect the well-being of all life. So, which of the two directions holds greater value?

Much of modern industrialization and civilization itself is built around this debate. But we’re coming to a crux point. The gains from natural resources are more immediate–they enable our daily lifestyles; for example, mobile phones are made in part from mineral commodities. Imagine that! You have a piece of the earth in your hands, even as you read this. The gains from conserving the earth are both short-term (cleaner air and personal health) and long-term (a slow rate or prevention, if not the reversal, of climate change). Sometimes, it’s easy to distance ourselves from the not-so-immediate future. “Ahh, why do we need to conserve resources? I’m not going to live long enough to see glaciers melt anyway!”; that isn’t an uncommon style of thought. In fact, it’s one that feeds rapid consumerism. ‘Changes that aren’t immediately visible are barely happening, so why deprive yourself of a good time?’

Here, children give us a cause. We owe it, in some sense, to leave a better world for them.

The value of nature becomes tangible once we participate in it. Breathe the clean air of the mountains, sit by the tranquil waters of a lake, drive or walk through dramatic scenery, or simply read a book in the sun on a grassy floor. Once we engage with nature, we feel for it. And, once we feel for it, we want to preserve it. It’s the simple foundation of loving something.

There are two overarching questions I want to tackle in this blog:

  • WHY should kids love nature?
  • HOW can we make kids fall in love with nature?

The first question is about getting a child to connect with the natural world in its sensory wholeness. The smell of wet grass, the sound of rain, the chilly wisps of wind that carry news of snowfall, the morning symphony of birds, and the evening orchestra of frogs. Maybe even a night-time lullaby of crickets? It’s about how this can become integrated with their sense of self.

The second question is about how we can help kids fall in love with nature in a media-heavy world. There’s an endless stream of electronic media that competes with nature for engagement of the senses. But, can tech and nature actually complement each other?

Why should kids love nature?

It seems reductive to be asking this, right? But, these are the types of questions that often need answering. From a modern parent’s standpoint, a conversation with their child could go something like this:

Mum – “Go outside and play. Get some time in nature, instead of being on the screen always! Do you know what WE were like, at your age?”

Kid – “But, I wanna play my game! See, all my friends are playing too (points to multiplayer identities).”

It’s easy to scoff at this with generational angst, but here, the child doesn’t actually have a strong case being made. There’s no specific answer as to WHY they should be in nature. So, let’s take a step back from loving nature. Why should kids engage with nature at all? Or, framed another way “What is the ‘importance’ of nature?”

The importance of nature for children

For starters, the health benefits are plenty:

Being in the sun allows their bodies to absorb components of Vitamin D that ONLY sunlight exposure can provide. Playing a game of soccer, hide and seek or, even hiking through the woods–active time spent in nature–improves cardiovascular fitness, which in turn benefits lung capacity and overall cardiac health. Engaging in a more hands-on way, for example, getting your hands dirty with a bit of gardening, exposes a child to bacteria that benefit their immunity. But, this is the stuff that’s already well known. Is there more?

Oh yes, there is!

In the early 1980s, a Harvard University biologist, Edward O. Wilson proposed a theory called Biophilia: that humans are instinctively drawn to their natural surroundings. However, many 21st-century parents find this instinct strongly challenged by the pull of devices. Their kids express a clear preference for screens over being outside. It’s a national crisis that’s become so extreme that it even comes with its own name: Nature Deficit Disorder. This is a starting point to understanding the psychological and mental benefits of time spent in nature.

Benefits to mental health

Simply put, children who spend time in nature are calmer, less anxious, and just happier. This is something we should be concerned about! While physical health has been studied for a while, psychological research is advancing our understanding of how time spent in nature can improve mental health. Let me contextualize this with some data: the average American child spends 4 to 7 minutes of unstructured play outdoors and over 7 hours a day in front of a screen.

This means lowered attention spans, reduced empathy, and alarmingly high levels of stress. 9.4% of children aged 3-17 years had been diagnosed with anxiety. No one has arguably brought more public attention to this issue–the relationship between nature deficit disorder and child anxiety–than Richard Louv. He’s the co-founder and chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network and author of Last Child In The Woods. He describes nature deficit disorder as a metaphor, more than a medical diagnosis, for the cost of alienating human life from nature: diminished use of the senses, child and adult obesity, Vitamin D deficiencies, higher rates of emotional illnesses, and other maladies.

He tells the story of interviewing a child who told him that he liked playing indoors because “that’s where all the electrical outlets are.” To some, like myself, this is a bit heartbreaking.

Benefits to cognitive abilities

According to the Attention Restoration Theory, urban environments require what’s called ‘directed attention’, which forces us to ignore distractions and exhausts our brain. In nature, we practice an effortless type of attention called ‘soft fascination’ that creates feelings of pleasure, not fatigue.

This in turn, replenishes a child’s cognitive resources. University of Chicago psychologist Mark Berman, Ph.D., and his student Kathyrn Schertz explored this topic in a 2019 review. They reported that, for instance, green spaces near schools promote cognitive development, and green views near their homes promote self-control behaviors. They found that there was a particular benefit to the areas of working memory, cognitive flexibility, and attentional-control tasks. It’s a fascinating study! They even found that children who listened to natural sounds like the chirping of crickets and waves crashing performed better on demanding academic tests than kids who listened to urban sounds like traffic and the clatter of a busy cafe.

How much time in nature is ‘enough’?

With so many benefits linked to nature, people naturally wonder: HOW much time in nature is ‘enough’? Now, this is a whole other topic! According to some research, 120 mins a week is reasonable. But, it’s not just about time spent, but rather how ‘connected’ one feels to nature. Researchers have a variety of names for this–nature connectedness, nature relatedness, or inclusion of self in nature.

Whatever we choose to call it, this connectedness is responsible for something called eudaimonic well-being–a type of contentment that goes beyond just feeling good and includes having a meaningful purpose in life.

Isn’t that ultimately what we want for our children?

How do we get children to feel for nature?

Now, I come to my second major question–HOW do we get children to feel for nature? Before I get into the topic, it’s worth mentioning that I don’t have any fixed answer. Rather, I can attempt to offer perspective through my own experiences.

Richard Louv described this matter well–how do we get children to ‘carry it (nature) in their hearts?’ This is where the love begins. Knowing what love does and loving itself are two very different things. If the first is an affair of the mind, the second is of the heart. The ‘importance’ of nature lies in the fine print of this question.

Here, I’d like to propose a somewhat odd collaboration as an answer.

Nature connection and technology–a symbiotic relationship?

We often look at technology as the enemy of nature. The very thing that’s dragging modern children away from where they ought to be. The thing that kindles generational angst and rants about ‘…kids these days’.

Alright, it’s a different world. And, I’ll admit, an alarming one at times. But we can only work with what we have, right? Of course, there are more extreme options–-going tech-free and living completely off-the-grid. Many have tried and written about their experiences with this (Mark Boyle’s The Way Home: Tales Of A Life Without Technology, for instance). But, for most modern parents, it’s not a relatable path. I feel that way about my own experiences; that they’re not ‘relatable’ enough for people. But, I’ll go ahead and share a quick tale or two, you decide whether there’s something to take home.

Experiencing nature through technology–how do children view it?

When my son was a year old, one of his favorite things to do was observe an Agama that lived in the stone foundation of the house we were staying at, in Himachal Pradesh. Each morning it would come out to get some sun, around 10 am, and Arlo would be there to observe. Some weeks later, a Rat Snake would do the same. His first exposure to scavenging was at 1.5 years old: watching a majestic wake of Himalayan Griffon Vultures feeding on a dead cow. At that point, he was barely a foot taller than each individual bird. Oh, what a sight! Now, this exposure didn’t mean he was ‘averse’ to technology or viewed it as a ‘lesser’ experience of nature. Kids don’t have those barriers, adults do. He deeply enjoyed stargazing through various sky-watching apps. Oh, the wonder! Constellations, galaxies, nebulae! If anything, this multiplied his curiosity and wonder about nature.

My point is, we ARE at the mercy of the world’s ways for various reasons. But that needn’t be an outright bad thing, even if there are negative aspects. We’d do well to modify our habits and seek the good in technology.

Can tech make us feel connected to nature?

If I think back, much of my own love for nature came from technology. My favorite snake was the Boomslang. I learned about the Gila Monster’s and Beaded Lizard’s venom. I developed a deep fascination for constrictors and thoroughly enjoyed watching the high-drama of the Serengeti. Growing up in Bangalore, India, in the ‘90s, television documentaries were my window to the wonders I could one day get to study, and connect with.

It was the same love that drove me to visit the Madras Crocodile Bank. There, I learned how the Irulas, a tribe of snake hunters, track snakes (they no longer use these skills to hunt) and facilitate the production of a majority of India’s anti-venom supply. In Agumbe, Karnataka, I saw a yellow Malabar Pit Viper with a close friend when we were taking a bathroom break, and both had a ‘WOW’ moment. This window of wonder was opened by technology.

If I had entirely resorted to the stoic philosophy of ‘watch nothing, just be in nature’, would I have carried this marvel and mystique in my heart? I doubt it. The Boomslang of Sub-Saharan Africa kindled my engagement with the Malabar Pit Viper of India. I’ve still not laid eyes on MANY of the species that fascinated me. But my connectedness exists. Nature IS a part of my sense of self. And somewhere, that fuels a search for meaning in what I do.

PlayShifu creates toys out of these ideals. Orboot Dinos is the interactive encyclopedia I never had. Orboot Earth is the globe that tells me how diverse the world is. These are toys that can catalyze the connectedness with nature that children need. They can make kids want to get their hands wet and muddy in mysterious places they’ve never seen before. They create a hunger for what the natural world offers.

For many (dare I say, most) urban kids, technology IS a way into nature. It gives them access to places and knowledge they may never otherwise gain. This knowledge, in turn, urges them to seek the sensations that eventually place nature in their heart.

They may begin in the closeby woods; what they experience–whether it’s observing tree sap or hearing the call of a squirrel–piques their interest. Technology offers a way to inform themselves and generate even more interest. The cycle repeats. Maybe this time, it’s a trip to Yellowstone National Park and witnessing the majestic American Bison. ‘Is there ANY other animal like this!?’ a child’s mind asks. They go home, play around with Orboot Earth, and come across a Gaur, the biggest member of the cattle family! Muscular, shiny skin, and absolutely massive! ‘I want to see one,’ the child’s mind says. And so, the cycle keeps repeating.

What I’m proposing here is that we use tech toys, and technology in general, to nurture a child’s sense of wonder. Believe me, watching the mysterious creatures of the deep seas, even on YouTube, brings such a curious sparkle to their eyes! This wonder and knowledge gained makes them WANT to participate in nature.

And so, we arrive at the next stage:

Turning nature connectedness to conservation

This is the affair of the heart. When made aware of the stress that natural spaces are under, they feel a pre-emptive loss. A shared sense, with millions of other children, of something that shouldn’t be destroyed. Because they love this. And, we want to save that which we love. That’s instinctive. In the simplest sense, that’s also conservation. At the very least, a starting point to understand WHY the conservation of natural resources is important.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Exit mobile version