14 January 2006

Reconnecting with nature

By Andrew Boswell

Sadly many of us today live indoor lives, largely or completely cut off from nature. It is poignantly sad for young people, often severely limited from venturing from home. Studies show what we know - that children are playing for less time and less in nature.

In one or two generations, the freedom to roam and play in nature, discover fields and woods, has been replaced by consoles, joysticks, mobile phones and virtual reality. We can expect that this rapid social change will bring disharmonies and dis-ease to the human spirit.

The Californian eco-poet Gary Snyder captured separation from nature when he wrote "Nature is not a place to visit - it is home". Yes, many of us are fortunate enough to visit nature, but Snyder suggests more - that we completely connect - for without that we are psychically homeless. How many of us are?

A recent book by Richard Louv "Last Child in the Woods" explores the possibility that the rapid rise of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), barely known before the 1980s, is related to children's loss of contact with nature. Thoroughly researched, his book suggests that we might need a new term - Nature Deficit Disorder.

Louv explores reasons for "keeping our children out of the woods", which include: fear of harm by strangers - actually media generated panic as such incidents are not increasing; officious attitudes to keeping parks "neat and tidy"; children locked in desolate, deprived urban environments; fast-paced lifestyles and increasingly "time poor" children. He points out "It takes time - loose unstructured dreamtime - to experience nature in a meaningful way" - this sort of time is a scarce resource in materialistic world that sees free play as a "waste of time".

But human beings are very adaptive and the damage can be repaired by reconnecting people with the living Earth - so they can see, hear, smell, touch and explore nature in a free, unstructured way. We could say the homelessness is healed by coming home again.

So what can be done to turn around this dangerous trend? The growing Forest Schools movement is one step. Originating in Sweden and Denmark, these schools use the outdoors as part of children's learning of practical and social skills. Children are set small manageable tasks, some with their hands in the soil - real connection. Worcestershire is an area leading the way in giving children a good foundation for life and future learning.

It has been found that the combination of freedom and responsibility has been particularly beneficial to children with little confidence or challenging behaviour. Crucially, the experience is fun and child led. This approach may be combined with conventional schooling as ideally children should attend Forest School sessions weekly, throughout the year, therefore experiencing all weathers and the changing seasons.

The Government would be doing something truly valuable for the future if it developed such programmes within the mainstream with funding and skills to make them work. By bringing children home to nature early in their lives, it would be healing the disconnection from nature early - hopefully healing it before it may become conditioned as a fear or abhorrence of nature, or an addiction to technology. Such contact with nature could be reinforced in mainstream schools themselves by providing gardens which children could participate in looking after.

Many adults also desperately need help to reconnect to nature. The World Health Organisation estimates that depression and depression related illness will become the greatest source of ill health by 2020 - this growing epidemic may in part be caused by the same disconnection from nature.

In continental Europe, there is a growing movement, called "Green Care", aiming to mitigate this. People may visit farms to assist their mental and physical health - psychiatric patients, people with learning difficulties or drug abuse history, disaffected young people, elderly people and social services clients.

Farmers benefit by receiving payments for taking patients, and free labour, and can still sell their produce. Whilst there are hundreds of Green Care farms in each of Norway, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Austria and Belgium, there is no provision in the UK. With the benefits to mental and physical health, we should surely develop such a programme in the UK.

Here in Norfolk, it was good to read last week that the RSPB at Strumpshaw Fen has employed a people engagement officer, Jennifer Toms, to encourage people to "explore wildlife, relax and interact with nature".

We should all take care of ourselves, taking time out to enjoy nature, and connect to it in "loose, structured dreamtime". This way we can all come home too.

Inspired by Buddhist Retreat
December 2005