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How nature can help your child

Mud pies, grazed knees, grass-stained clothes and climbing tress - that's what childhood used to be made of. But have we lost sight of the benefits of getting our hands a little bit dirty?

Nurtured by nature
Image Credit: Camera Press
Talk to your children about conservation, extinction, respect for the planet, the consequences of our actions if we don't.
Aquarius

Ask people what childhood memories they have of being in nature and they'll go all misty-eyed and regale you with Tom Sawyer-esque stories of their freedom wandering the countryside with nothing but a Swiss Army knife and a Mars bar. Or, feasting on fruit plucked from trees in their garden. Or, learning to fish with their father.

I remember all of those, but I also remember having to wait at the top of a tall tree, swaying in the wind for what seemed like hours while my friend fetched my parents (lesson - it's easier to get into trouble than it is to get out of it). Another time, picking up a bird's egg only to be told that, because I had touched it the mother bird would reject the egg now (lesson - don't interfere). A few years later, wandering a rocky, blustery beach in winter clothes collecting ammonite fossils from hundreds of millions of years ago (lesson - this planet has a life and a history all of its own).

So many experiences, and equally as many lessons. It's a shame then that the closest my own children have got to nature this week is camping. In our sitting room.

For many parents, their own childhood memories offer a stark and discomforting comparison to their own children's experiences (or lack of) with the natural world. But it's not just happening here in the UAE, where we are already at a disadvantage due to the lack of natural habitats and indigenous species: children all over the world are swapping time in nature, for time indoors. At a great loss to them, says journalist and author, Richard Louv. In his book Last Child in the Woods (Algonquin Books), he documents the cause and effect of this almighty disconnect with nature, which he believes happened in the space of one generation.

A one-way door

It would be an easy and tidy argument if the only reason for this shift away from the natural world was the advent of the non-natural world - in other words, technology. However, while technology in all its forms has undoubtedly played a very real and effective part in enticing children away from the hot, sticky outside air and into the cool, breezy, bacteria-laden air con, Louv puts it down to more than just that. Louv also blames the spread of urban areas and living zones, which means that there is less geographical overlap between children and nature, along with the general parental fear of what (and who) lurks in the shadows, which makes today's parents less likely to let their children roam freely than parents 20 years ago.

Louv also wags a disapproving finger at what he calls "the criminalisation of natural play", referring to how people are less encouraging of children hammering nails into tree, or kicking a football on the only patch of grass within a three-kilometre radius (which may be a 15km radius here in the UAE). When children walk around with mud on their knees and twigs in their hair, strangers assume lazy, neglectful parenting. Could it not just be that the parents don't fret about their children getting their hands dirty while exploring their environment? Louv says, "The disappearance of accessible open space escalates the pressure on those few natural places that remain - local flora is trampled; fauna die or relocate, and nature-hungry people follow in their four-wheel-drive vehicles, or motorcycles. Meanwhile, the regulatory message is clear: islands of nature that are left by the graders are to be seen, not touched."

He goes on to say that the impact of overdevelopment, park rules and environmental regulations all send a "chilling message to children that their free-range play is unwelcome, that organised sports on manicured playing fields is the only officially sanctioned form of outdoor recreation."

This is particularly relevant here in the UAE where the only patches of green are ‘manicured' parks which need round-the-clock maintenance and an intravenous drip of flowing water. Although a welcome break for desert-weary eyes, the rules at these parks can be frustrating - for example, no bicycles. As someone with a daughter who is desperate to learn to ride her bicycle without stabilisers, but can't find an area of grass where her little bike is allowed, this rule seems contradictory to the very purpose of the park.

According to Carrie Tindell, general manager of The Desert Ranch, who is both a devoted equestrian and an avid nature enthusiast, "A lot of people come here from countries where their children have an outdoor life and, once they are here, they get sucked into the culture of malls, cinemas and shops. Even when you go to the parks you have to make your own activities. It's not an open, free experience of nature."

With every passing year, fewer and fewer children are signing up for outdoor activities, according to Louv; the door leading from outside to inside is only allowing traffic through in one direction.

From splinters to RSI

In the same way that children need food, water and sleep in order to grow and develop to their full potential, so they need nature. Not only because an hour of play outside in the elements is more physical than an hour on the sofa, but because there are other, more subtle, consequences of children losing touch with nature. Louv says, "Nature-deficit disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses." According to his research, the disorder is not just limited to individuals, but entire families and communities. He says, "Nature-deficit can even change human behaviour in cities, which could ultimately affect their design, since long-standing studies show a relationship between the absence, or inaccessibility, of parks and open space with high crime rates, depression, and other urban maladies."

Vitamin ‘N'

The foundations of Louv's movement are not cemented in fear of what will happen to your children if they remain plugged into the electronic world, it is more about what they can gain from tapping into Mother Nature's life source. Not only do children learn about nature itself, but each activity offers its own lessons - building a treehouse, for example, is like a mini masterclass in engineering, says Louv.

At The Desert Ranch, Tindell and her team offer workshops and activities in an outdoor environment, in a project called Living Classrooms. She says, "We do scavenger hunts, camel milk tasting and animal husbandry where they learn about how to look after animals. They also get social interaction in a learning and team-based environment, doing things like cleaning out the duck pond, or making a new goat enclosure. It's good physical work for them, too."

Additionally, nature-based play fosters and incubates creativity like indoor play areas never will. Louv cites studies from all over the world which show that when children play in nature, not only is their play less interrupted, but it is more imaginative and fantasy-based, and social hierarchies and friendships are more likely to be based on language skills and creativity rather than on physical strength, (whether nature creates arty types or simply attracts arty types is not known).

However, it is really in the realms of mental and emotional health that nature comes into its own. Louv makes references to clinical proof that nature can help to treat mental illnesses in both adults and children - from depression, stress and consequently high blood pressure, to attention issues such as ADD. According to Louv, our brains evolved more than 5,000 years to be suited to an agrarian existence, and while 70 to 80 per cent of children can adapt to today's over-stimulated environment, the rest cannot. Because of this, nature can help calm an over-stimulated child suffering from ADD.

Spiritually, we all know the feeling of being grounded by a moment of connection to nature. A deeper understanding of the world, life, yourself. In James Cameron's 2009 award-winning film Avatar, the Na'vi are able to connect with Eywa (their female goddess of nature), by attaching their tails to the Tree of Souls. When they plug themselves in to Eywa, they can feel the beauty, the pain, the joy and the sadness of all living creatures and plants. Unfortunately, we don't have tails that we can use to plug into nature's electrical socket, but we do have empathy - which can be a powerful vehicle for teaching respect, Louv says. "Nature - the sublime, the harsh, and the beautiful - offers something that the street or gated community or computer game cannot. It offers an environment where they can easily contemplate infinity and eternity [...] Immersion in the natural environment cuts to the chase, exposes the young directly and immediately to the very elements from which humans evolved: earth, water, air and other living kin, large and small."

Time for a nature reboot

If you are sitting looking out of your window at a barren view, contemplating moving back home so your children can see rainbows and hold buttercups under their chins, fret not. Just because a child is living in Britain, or Australia, or India, it doesn't necessarily mean they will be running free in the wilderness, making friends with packs of coyotes and understanding the true meaning of life. Having grown up in the Middle East myself, I can vouch for the fact that children here can have just as strong a connection with nature as children in other countries. It's about making the most of the landscape around you.

Sam Whittam is general manager of Adventure HQ, an adventure sports gear store in Dubai, and a keen outdoor enthusiast. He hopes that Adventure HQ will help people living in the UAE to realise the vast and varied opportunities for outdoor living that we have on our doorstep. He says, "We want to change perceptions and influence lives positively - for individuals and families of all nationalities and backgrounds. We have a lot of initiatives in mind, to teach people where to go and what to do, how to use the gear correctly, and we also rent gear out."

Sam says there is a surge of growth in this area right now, with different service providers joining forces to encourage action throughout the whole community. "We work with Absolute Adventures, Ecoventures and other groups to support programmes teaching children how to be more self-sufficient, about camping, kayaking, hiking and surf-lifesavers courses," he says.

A downside of encouraging people to venture outside of their glitzy apartment buildings and into the wilderness is the refuse that is left behind as a result. Litter is everywhere - even at the top of Mount Everest, apparently - and the UAE is no different. Paul Oliver has been living in the UAE for almost 30 years. His love for adventure activities saw him co-founding adventure charity Gulf4Good, and more recently Absolute Adventures, to offer local expeditions to adults - a project which is now very popular with school groups. He says, "We quickly realised that schools were crying out for adventures. It's quite normal for us to have children who have never been camping before - it's alien to them, but within a very short time of being out in nature they end up loving it. We've had kids with us that have never been out of the city, which is a shame because they don't get an idea of being responsible for themselves, or entertaining themselves. We do activities with them and teach them how to respect nature with our Leave No Trace programmes, about how to use the outdoors in an ethical manner. It's hard to change parents, but it's easier to teach kids to grow up and be responsible. They can even have an impact on their parents' habits."

Get creative

You only have to scratch the surface of the UAE's marble exterior to find a community of people who are finding new ways of enjoying the natural habitat around us. Nature-deficit disorder is not caused by where you live, it is caused by the shift towards a lifestyle intertwined with technology - broadening the mind through the internet, exploring through documentaries, and the desire to fill our children's days with activities and hobbies, rather than letting them create their own entertainment. Which of us doesn't remember being banished to the boring garden for the afternoon, only to be dragged in hours later against our will?

As for nature-based activities you can enjoy with your children, the list is endless. Louv has a list of suggestions: from starting a journal together in which to document things you see on nature walks, to camping, sharing your own memories of nature, scuba diving, using your child's vast collection of stuffed animals to talk about their different natural habitats and lives, and gardening together - growing from seed, not just from seedlings. Sign them up for nature workshops and eco-adventure camps. Talk about conservation, extinction, respect for the planet, the consequences of our actions if we don't. After all, the planet will one day be in their hands, and then their children's hands. "Passion does not arrive on videotape or CD," says Louv, "passion is personal. Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart. If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species - the child in nature."

Raising a nature lover

We asked our panel of nature enthusiasts about their own childhood experiences with nature and what made them choose a life outdoors.

>> Carrie Tindell is a dedicated equestrian and general manager of The Desert Ranch (www.desert-ranch.com)

"I grew up in the countryside in the north of England and was outdoors all seasons of the year building dens and mud huts, treehouses, picking berries for jam, I think every kid back then made rose petal perfume... Now as an adult I still have the need to be outside all the time. Even in 40˚C heat, I am out there shovelling sand. The environment here in the UAE is not as inhospitable as people like to make out. I think there's an awareness you get from being in nature - you learn to respect things like birds nests and learn about the circle of life. You get a physical workout and it's good for the soul. It's very grounding to working outdoors... you may get dirty doing it, but afterwards you feel connected to the ground you are on."

>> Sam Whittam is a cyclist and general manager of Adventure HQ (www.adventurehq.ae)

"I was born on a chicken hatchery farm - the youngest of four kids. We ran wild - barefoot through the paddocks, wherever we wanted, and we were a sporty family. When I was 14, I caught the Tour de France on TV. I saved up and bought myself a bike and started cycling. I loved it. I was free to cycle when I wanted, where I wanted. I used to sleep in my lycra so I could get up at 4am and cycle. By my late 20s I was working in a bike shop - it wasn't very good money but it was a chance to inspire people to cycle - to see the cows wake up, to see the mist lifting off the ground in the early morning. I used to explain to customers in the shop that they weren't just buying a bike, they were buying a lifestyle. Mountains, ferns, birds... the smell of nature. It's a living thing. It has a heartbeat."

>> Paul Oliver, adventure trekker and managing director of Absolute Adventures (www.adventure.ae)

"I've been a mountain climber and adventure trekker for as long as I can remember. When I was younger I used to sail with my father and did the scouts. Nature's just always been a part of my life. It helped me to become self-reliant and used to being outdoors. It instilled in me a curiosity about the world. I've read articles about Nature-deficit disorder. I think we have become disconnected with nature and that reconnecting can have enormous benefits."

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