Trevor Hancock: Children need nature; nature needs children

Today, we are largely disconnected from nature. There is growing evidence this is bad for our children’s health.

Many stories have been in the media recently about the health benefits of being outdoors and engaged with nature. Many are concerned with the physical-activity benefits of being outdoors and active.

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This has received much attention, so I won’t explore that here. But there are other physical health benefits to being out in nature.

One is associated with the “hygiene hypothesis,” the idea that early exposure to microbes or other allergens acts a bit like an immunization, reducing the risk of developing allergies later in life. The concern is that we have become so clean, so hygienic, that we have lost that benefit.

A recent Swedish study, for example, found fewer allergies among children where dishwashing was by hand rather than the more hygienic dishwasher.

(They also found a reduced risk “if the children were also served fermented food and if the family bought food directly from farms.” Maybe a little dirt is good for us!)

Another emerging finding is that exposure to sunlight is important in the prevention of short-sightedness. Studies comparing Chinese students in Asia (where around 90 per cent of school leavers in Singapore need glasses, for example) and Australia have found that it is not reading or watching TV, the use of video games or computers that is the problem, but the amount of time spent indoors.

It seems we need exposure to sunlight, and we need to look out at the wider environment to prevent much of the short-sightedness.

Other studies examine the mental-health benefits of nature. There are many, and these I will discuss in a few weeks. But here I want to focus on some broader social-health benefits of being outside and in contact with nature.

A troubling report from Sheffield, England, refers to the “roaming distance” of four generations of eight-year-olds from one family. It’s a story I relate to because my father grew up there, and the great-grandfather, George, could have been him at age 8 — able to go on his own 10 kilometres to the river to fish.

But with each succeeding generation, their roaming distance has shrunk. Now great-grandson Ed can walk on his own only 300 metres, to the end of his street.

This story raises interesting questions, but for me the most telling is this: Who do we think knew most about their community, what it is and how it worked, how the parts related, who lived where?

Yes, maybe young Ed could get all that — and more — from the Internet, but is that the same knowledge? It certainly isn’t the same experience.

Another aspect of the importance of connecting kids with nature is found in the apocryphal stories that they don’t know that milk comes from a cow, or more generally where their food comes from.

But there is a deeper social, even spiritual malaise in our disconnection from nature. This is illustrated by a story from Los Angeles at the time of the large 1994 earthquake. Ron Chepesiuk reported in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives that “many anxious residents called local emergency centers to report seeing a strange ‘giant, silvery cloud’ in the dark sky. What they were really seeing — for the first time — was the Milky Way, long obliterated by the urban sky glow.”

The first World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness tells us: “Two-thirds of the U.S. population and more than one-half of the European population have already lost the ability to see the Milky Way with the naked eye.” If we can’t see the stars, how do we know our place in the universe?

Finally, there is another, more profound relationship between children and nature. Not only do children benefit from exposure to nature, but nature also benefits. The natural world is already under enormous pressure from human activity. If we raise a generation of kids with little connection to nature, they will not respect, cherish and protect nature.

So it is in the interests not only of humans, but of nature, that we increase children’s contact with nature.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.

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