Fri, Nov 23, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Children’s natural disconnect

With half of their time spent sitting in front of screens, the next generation is losing contact with nature and will not be equipped to defend it from harm

By George Monbiot  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: Mountain People

“One woe doth tread upon another’s heel, So fast they follow,” William Shakespeare wrote.

That radical green pressure group PricewaterhouseCoopers warns that even if the present rate of global decarbonization were to double, we would still be on course for 6?C of warming by the end of the century. Confining the rise to 2?C requires a sixfold reduction in carbon intensity: far beyond the scope of current policies.

A new report shows that the UK has lost 20 percent of its breeding birds since 1966: Once common species, such as willow tits, lesser spotted woodpeckers and turtle doves, have all but collapsed; even house sparrow numbers have fallen by two-thirds. Ash dieback is just one of many terrifying plant diseases, mostly spread by trade. Disease now threatens British oaks, pines and chestnuts.

So where are the marches, the occupations, the urgent demands for change? While the surveys show that the great majority would like to see the living planet protected, few are prepared to take action. This, I think, reflects a second environmental crisis: the removal of children from the natural world. The young people we might have expected to lead the defense of nature have less and less to do with it.

We do not have to disparage the indoor world, which has its own rich ecosystem, to lament children’s disconnection from the outdoor world, but the experiences the two spheres offer are entirely different. There is no substitute for what takes place outdoors; not least because the greatest joys of nature are unscripted. The thought that most of our children will never swim among phosphorescent plankton at night, will never be startled by a salmon leaping, a dolphin breaching, the stoop of a peregrine, the rustle of a grass snake, is almost as sad as the thought that their children might not have the opportunity.


The remarkable collapse of children’s engagement with nature — which is even faster than the collapse of the natural world — is recorded in Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods, and in a report published recently by the National Trust, the British heritage conservation body. Since the 1970s, the area in which children may roam without supervision has decreased by almost 90 percent.

In one generation, the proportion of children regularly playing in wild places in the UK has fallen from more than half to fewer than one in 10. In the US, in just six years (from 1997 to 2003), numbers of children with particular outdoor hobbies fell by half. Eleven to 15-year-olds in Britain now spend, on average, half their waking day in front of a screen.

There are several reasons for this: parents’ irrational fear of strangers and rational fear of traffic, the destruction of the fortifying commons where previous generations played, the quality of indoor entertainment, the structuring of children’s time, the criminalization of natural play. The great indoors, as a result, has become a far more dangerous place than the diminished world beyond.

The rise of obesity, rickets and asthma and the decline in cardio-respiratory fitness are well documented. Louv also links the indoor life to an increase in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other mental illnesses. Research conducted at the University of Illinois suggests that playing among trees and grass is associated with a marked reduction in indications of ADHD, while playing indoors or on tarmac appears to increase them.

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